At moments, the human mind recoils in horror from the human condition. "Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not". There will be a lot of Rachels in Colorado today. The victims' smiling all-American faces are so heart-rendingly at odds with their fate. They all look as if they knew how to enjoy life and to be happy with their friends and their families. To go in an instant from fun and love to murder and the mortuary; how will the grief of aching loss ever find comfort?
Whether it be via rationalism, religion or superstition – or a mixture – we all want to make sense of things. We also recoil from the notion that in an instant, any of us could become a random target of malign fate. The randomness is chilling. Most of us would like to believe that we have some control over our destiny, and in advanced societies, so we do, to a greater extent than any previous generation. Far more than our forbears could, we can keep our mortality in a locked mental closet. It is the more terrifying therefore, when the closet is torn open; the control revealed to be illusory.
In Europe, there will be a tendency to blame American gun laws, or rather, the lack of them. Those who reach for that explanation should be asked to remind us which US State includes Norway. They might also consider the one country in the world which obliges most of its male population to keep firearms at home, and its rate of gun crime: Switzerland. Guns do not kill people; people kill people.
That said, the US invented the mass random murder, though it has now been exported. Tragedy attracts cod psychology, so here is my contribution. The US is a marvellous country; many of the cliches are true. There do seem to be wide open spaces: physical, financial, mental. It is a land of opportunity. For many people, the American dream comes true. There is an unwritten item in the US Bill of Rights: that this year shall be better than last year and next year shall be better than this year. No wonder the huddled masses were – and are – drawn to America's shores. The New World Symphony is still an alternative national anthem.
But all this imposes a psychic cost. We must always remember that freedom is a modern invention. Before 1800, only a tiny fraction of the world's inhabitants enjoyed the freedoms which we take for granted. Because we regard freedom as a given, it is easy to forget how profound are the adjustments which it imposes on human institutions, and on the human psyche. Not all human beings relish the stresses and strains of freedom and oppportunity. Many would prefer a society in which they did not have to strive to establish their own identity: where they would find a pre-ordained place in a social hierarchy, and be looked after.
In his famous study of suicide, Durkheim argued that people were more likely to kill themselves when the weather was good. The sunshine made their inner darkness intolerable. (If that is true, there should have been very few breaches of the canon against self-slaughter in Britain so far this summer.) In so many senses, America is a sunny country. That will create psychological casualties. Even when it seems that men have recreated the Garden of Eden, there will always be a serpent. Original sin remains the best short summary of the human condition, along with A E Housman's slightly longer version. "The troubles of our proud and angry dust/ Are from eternity, and shall not fail" (Housman was an atheist).
Yesterday, the clergy will have earned their stipends. The question is bound to have been asked: "Where was God when this was happening?" There is an answer, but to make it palatable, let alone comforting, must require every resource of eloquence and humanity that the preacher could command. The textbook explanation would be something along the following lines. We are not God's pets: if we were, the RSPCA would have prosecuted him long ago, for neglect, and the Court would have banned him from keeping animals.
If we take the first few chapters of Genesis as an allegory, humanity rejected pet-hood and innocence in favour of knowledge and travail. Beyond Eden, there was a world which had been admirably designed as a moral playing field for an endless fixture. The game would throw up heroes and Hitlers; saintliness and savagery; beauty beyond words: bestiality equally beyond words. Indeed, applied to humans, bestiality itself is unfair to the beasts of the field, who would never behave that badly.
This moral assault course could only work if man possessed free will. If the Almighty were always on the touch-line as a celestial G4S or St John's Ambulance Brigade, the game would lose its drama. Even in Denver, there was glory amidst the horror. Two young men died saving their girl friends. Did they but know it, they also fell in combat in the endless struggle to vindicate common humanity in the contest against evil (a Christian would proclaim that they do know it now, and are embarking upon their reward).
But it cannot be easy to make these theoretical points when consoling the bereaved. Some years ago, I met a Catholic priest who told a most moving tale. Not long after ordination, when he was merely a fledgling curate, his parish priest fell seriously ill and he was left in charge. A delightful young mother who had been suffering from aches and pains went to the doctor in expectation of a few pills. Instead, she was rapidly referred to a solemn specialist who broke the terrible news. Cancer, inoperable, nothing could be done. She had two months to live. "How could God allow this?" she railed. "I have three small children and a distraught husband who is barely able to boil an egg. What will become of them? I don't claim to be especially holy, but I have tried to be a loyal and obedient Christian. Is this my reward? How can I still believe in a God of love?"
The priest told his rapt audience that he had felt tested to the uttermost. He came out with two solutions. He told the mother that she and her family were very popular in the parish – which was true – and that everyone would rally round to provide practical help, as well as endless hugs. He also said that when she arrived in Heaven, she was perfectly entitled to be angry with God. She should march straight up to Him and ask what He meant by it. He would reply: "But my daughter, I have all eternity to make it up to you".
The idea of being angry with God tickled her fancy. She regained her courage and retained her faith. She did not quite die laughing at the thought of giving her Creator a good ticking-off, but it helped to ease her passing. Priest, pastor padre: being middle Americans, the Colorado victims' families will all be members of churches. We can only hope that they find the sort of comfort which that priest brought to the stricken mother.