Sacrifices pleasing to Moloch
The U.S. civil religion is uniquely primed to routinize school shootings
There used to be a taboo against child sacrifice. Societies devised elaborate punishments not only for those who performed the act, but for those who looked the other way and allowed it go on happening.
Today in the United States of America there is a public liturgy we repeat every time someone picks up a gun and massacres children in a school. Garry Wills’ essay “Our Moloch” is a piece of that liturgy, and it’s useful for crystallizing and sanctifying our rage. Writing about guns in 2012 after a man murdered 6 adults and 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, he invoked the ancient Hebrew depiction of Moloch, or Molech, an idol to whom people sacrificed their children:
Adoration of Moloch permeates the country, imposing a hushed silence as he works his will. One cannot question his rites, even as the blood is gushing through the idol’s teeth … “It is not the time” to question Moloch. No time is right for showing disrespect for Moloch.
We worship false idols and revere racist documents like the Constitution as the holy scriptures of the American civil religion. Layered over that ideological-theological foundation, we live in material conditions unique to our time and country: There are more guns than people in the U.S.A. At this moment in many of the states, it is easier to buy rifle rounds than a container of baby formula. The shooter who murdered 18 children and 3 adults yesterday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, went to the store on his 18th birthday and bought 2 semiautomatic rifles with no questions asked.
Unless and until we begin a campaign of mass disarmament of police, civilians, and the military, the routine slaughter will continue. No piecemeal limits on magazine capacity, no amount of mental health counseling, no ratcheting-up of the police and surveillance state can overcome the sheer availability of handguns and rifles in this death cult of a country.
The past two years under the pall of COVID-19 have shown that the U.S. is not good at many things, but its government and media apparatus are masterful at the routinization of mass death. 100,000 deaths constituted “an incalculable loss” in May 2020; we surpassed 1 million dead this month as pundits whined about the inconvenience of wearing masks on an airplane.
Aside from guns, there is another venerated machine in American life, and it too overcame a stigma as the modern Moloch. It’s the automobile.
This excerpt is from the podcast 99% Invisible, Episode 76, on the public understanding of cars in the early 20th century:
Much of the public viewed the car as a death machine. One newspaper cartoon even compared the car to Moloch, the god to whom the Ammonites supposedly sacrificed their children.
Pedestrian deaths were considered public tragedies. Cities held parades and built monuments in memory of children who had been struck and killed by cars. Mothers of children killed in the streets were given a special white star to honor their loss.
But after a while, Americans came to accept daily carnage as the admission price for modernity. This societal shift came thanks, in part, to a PR campaign every bit as ingenious as the NRA’s post-Columbine spin. E.B. Lefferts, head of the Automobile Club of California in the 1920s, helped promulgate new laws against a crime invented by the automotive industry: “jay walking.”
In many cases, the onus of caution was now on the pedestrian, not on the manufacturers of steel death machines or on the people operating them.
I recognize this posture, this going-on-the-offensive, in Republicans’ reflexive responses to the Uvalde massacre. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton immediately went on the news to preemptively oppose new gun laws and encourage people to buy more guns. Here in South Carolina, lower-level ghouls like state Sen. Josh Kimbrell, who just this month was proposing limitations on teachers’ speech on the subject of racism, called on teachers to arm themselves for shootouts in the halls.
Gun incidents have finally surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death among U.S. children and adolescents, according to a letter published 6 days ago in the New England Journal of Medicine. The news came after two decades of declining auto fatalities, but it also followed a spike in gun homicides and a slow upward crawl in the rate of suicides.
The common sense now is that guns, like cars and coronavirus, spread and multiply inevitably. We have regulated the automotive industry to some extent, but at this moment the handpicked lunatics on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals are doing their best to demolish what’s left of the regulatory state. The hard-right theocratic Supreme Court of the United States is also poised to declare a broad swath of state-level gun laws unconstitutional this summer.
One difference between guns and cars in this country is that cars never became religious fetish objects. They’re enshrined in public policy and lauded in popular culture, but there is no equivalent to the Second Amendment for cars. The romance of the gun is older and more durable.
However we got to the current state of affairs, Moloch is pleased. There’s a fresh coat of blood on the altar today. Last night parents wailed and gnashed their teeth and cried out to God to end their suffering. Gun violence, self-inflicted gunshots, and accidental discharges will carry on unabated as Republicans offer the kind of prayer that God hates and Democrats wring their hands and respect the sanctity of the filibuster.
According to the third book of the Torah, sacrifice to Moloch carried one of the strongest taboos and was worthy of the harshest punishment, both for the perpetrators and the people who allowed it to happen:
And if the people of the land do at all close their eyes to that man when he gives one of his children to Molech, and do not put him to death, then I will set my face against that man and against his clan and will cut them off from among their people, him and all who follow him in whoring after Molech. (Leviticus 20:4-5) 1
It’s hard to say, from one day to the next, which scriptures U.S. conservatives will insist on taking literally, or semi-literally, or metaphorically. They mostly skip Leviticus, with one or two extremely problematic exceptions.
But if hell is real and so is Moloch, then may they find some food for contemplation.
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Christian conservatives have invoked the image of Moloch to describe the practice of abortion. However, as physician and medical researcher Tomas J. Silber has noted in the Journal of Religion & Health, Jewish theologians and traditions since ancient times have placed embryos and fetuses in a separate category from infants and children.