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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Illinois gunman had strange idea of ‘social justice’

    Feb. 15 was a gray day in Tucson, doused in continual rain.

    It was the kind of day on which French painter Claude Monet loved to work in his garden, when the colors of the flowers shone most vibrantly against the sky’s relative bleakness.

    But the scarlet of blood was the only color contrasting with that overcast Friday, as we reflected on the tragic shooting at Northern Illinois University of the day before. Steve Kazmierczak had entered an NIU classroom at 3 p.m. and opened fire on students, killing five before taking his own life.

    With each such school shooting, a flurry of interpretation follows. Letters demand legal reform that will permit on-campus weapon carrying, just as the international community shakes its head at an America it considers drunk with violence. And psychologists – professional and amateur alike – have a field day applying favorite theories to explain the killer’s actions, from violent video game dependency to low self-esteem.

    Our craving for explanation is not solely due to political or ideological agendas, however. Social psychology research has demonstrated that people are committed to maintaining a logical picture of the world, especially when confronted by events that seem to undermine justice and order. This cognitive tendency runs deep; my colleague, Professor Mark Landau, even demonstrated – in experiments done on this campus – that there is a connection between unconscious anxiety and people’s negative reactions to modern art pieces which defy obvious meaning.

    Yet what chance have we for an explanation of the Illinois shooting? Unlike some of his megalomaniacal predecessors, Kazmierczak left no embittered testament as a cipher. From all accounts, he’d been a nice guy who’d done his high school extracurriculars before moving up to what looked like a promising career in sociology. Sure, he’d stopped his “”medication”” shortly before the incident, but that was about the only implication that something was horribly wrong.

    Perhaps most disturbing was not Kazmierczak’s intelligence – we’re used to superintellectual sociopaths – but rather his previous commitment to bettering humanity. In the author’s biography of a co-written paper on prisoner self-injury, Kazmierczak was described as an activist academic committed to “”peace and social justice.”” When did the good intentions turn into bullets?

    In this instance, art might actually help us make sense of what happened. On the day of the shooting, a new exhibit opened at the UA Museum of Art: a collection of highly innovative prints by 18th century artist Francisco de Goya titled “”Los Caprichos.”” These dark and disturbing caricatures were inspired by Goya’s Enlightenment-era dedication to achieving social reform, and his critical depictions of contemporary prison conditions and Inquisition trials are an eerie echo of Kazmierczak’s own reformatory writing.

    Yet later prints in the series become less clear in their meaning as twisted ghouls replace human figures, and a futile sense of chaos overwhelms the viewer. Some have interpreted these as products of Goya’s deafness, which cursed him with an isolation surely similar to that Kazmierczak might have felt in the days before his rampage. An ambiguity in Spanish allows one pivotal image’s title to be interpreted as “”The dream of reason produces monsters.”” Could this be Goya’s admission that his own quest for reason and justice had given him only a vision of a society rancid with senseless suffering? Did Kazmierczak’s activism and sense of injustice lead him to a hopeless conception of all people as doomed monsters that might just as well be slain? The art he put on his own body – including a tattoo from the “”Saw”” films, in which a serial murderer tortures others for their sins – suggests this possibility.

    Maybe we should walk away from Goya’s cavalcade of specters with the hard lesson that the monstrosities of this world occasionally permit no scientific explanation. Or maybe they offer an explanation even harder than the lack of one: That in the struggle against social evil, the overwhelmingness of our inhumanity can sometimes claim those who would crusade for good. Those of us who dream of a better world should remember what goodness already exists, and heed Nietzsche’s words: – “”He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.””

    Daniel Sullivan is a senior majoring in German studies and psychology. He can be reached at

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