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Explaining Horror

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August 6, 2011 by Steven Worden

In keeping with my usual summer ritual, this past Sunday I bathed my dogs, scrubbing them for fleas and ticks. I recalled how I gave the larger dog, Anthony, his first bath many years earlier and how he had eyed me skeptically as I struggled to get him into the tub for the first time. As I had wrestled with him, probably getting more water on myself than him, I had looked into his eyes and I thought I saw a flicker of suspicion and fear. At that point, I had stopped to question the wisdom of my actions.

The backstory: years ago, after my family decided we wanted a dog, I asked a student who was volunteering at the Fayetteville Animal Shelter to keep an eye out for a likely candidate. A few weeks later he called. Excitedly, he told me that he had found the perfect dog. Thrilled, we drove to the shelter only to meet a beautiful, reddish-blond, short-haired dog grinning at us, wagging his tail. But, I did happen to notice that he looked quite muscular and he regarded us through slits for eyes. At that point, I asked someone what kind of a dog he was.

“A Lab cross,” was the answer.

“What’s he crossed with?” we asked.

“Uh, terrier,” came back the somewhat vague reply.

Later, after I had gotten him home, I asked a friend to come over and see our new dog. She took one look at him and asked, “Where did you get the pit-bull?”

Thus, it was only a couple of days later when I was struggling to pry Anthony (named after the patron saint of the lost) into the tub, that I had looked into his eyes and asked myself, “How well did I really know this dog?”

As grace would have it, Anthony turned out to be the finest dog we have ever owned. At the house, he tags after me from room to room and seems happiest when he is as close to me as possible, often laying his head across my foot as I write. He loves his daily walks when he checks out the path or stops to stare at a new backhoe in a construction zone, tilting his head in curiosity.

A strong dog, admittedly, he will sometimes play roughly with other dogs, given the opportunity. But, if they roll over on their backs, he always backs off and joyfully just wants to romp some more. Other dogs have bitten him, almost losing part of an ear to a German Shepherd, but he has never bitten another dog.

However, just to be on the safe side, I never let him off his leash except in our back yard and obviously, we don’t even dare ask to be admitted to doggy daycares. But, in reality, his Labrador nature seems to have completely won out over his pit-bull nature. As the theologian Robert Barron would say, his magna anima (great soul) has apparently overcome his pusilla anima (small soul). He has lost his distrust and fear and lives in a world that is great, roomy, and expansive. But, the leash stays on.

As I consider the past events in Norway, with a cruel killer taking the lives of so many adults and especially young people, I listen to the analysts and commentators as they explain it as the actions of a madman or maybe another case of too easy access to weaponry. Me, I think also of the pusilla anima, a lone soul confronted with fear and anxiety that sees itself as the threatened center of a hostile universe and has to lash out at apparent enemies. Fed with the soul-corroding rhetoric of other tormented sympathizers, he fought against his own emptiness and insufficiency.

The gunman reveals, in his “manifesto,” a being trapped in the coldness, constriction, and darkness of boundless self-absorption and egotism, lashing out against a threatening world. He admits not being able to easily interact with others, but oddly views himself as a great historical figure—a grandiose deification of himself in a twisted drama of patriotism, Masonry, Knights Templar, and White Supremacy—a “Justiciar Knight” worthy of “veneration” by “generations to come.” In short, pathetic, self-elevating, egotistic, resentful individualism carried to its extreme, expressed with planning and rationality.

Perhaps this is what frightens us the most: the expression of fearful, grasping, human hyper-individualistic viciousness in a land that prides itself on peace, openness, and tolerance. Norwegians have awakened from a dream of an innocent idealism unspoiled by the horror of vain, self-absorbed, violence supposedly found only in other societies. But, however the experts eventually explain it, once again we all have come face to face with the daunting darkness of our own mixed nature, unleashed. It is our challenge to confront it and command it without totally giving up on the dream.

Steven Worden

PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas

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