It takes a lot of anger to drive someone to enter a school and kill the most precious, most vulnerable members of a community. The repository of our hopes for the future, children are our greatest investment as a species.
In the West we've had our share of sorrow with Dunblane, Columbine, Beslan.
Now the phenomenon has struck China in a spate of school killings — five in the last two months. The latest case was unusual in that this was no desperate loner or nihilist grouping. It was a pillar of the community, a 48-year old man with social status who'd been known to show charity himself. Full of fury over a property dispute, Wu Huanming walked into a kindergarten in Xinzheng, Shaanxi Province, slashed seven children and two adults to death with a kitchen cleaver, walked home, smoked a cigarette as he watched his panicked neighbours rushing to the school, and then killed himself before vengeful parents could do it for him.
Is that the ultimate act of cowardice? To choose death but want to take others with you?
Few have missed the additional cruelty that in the land of the one-child family these killings devastate concentric circles of victims and continue destroying way beyond the act itself.
There had been self-harmings and suicides over the past decade or so but this method of protest probably lost its usefulness the day a pensioner scaled the bridge where a young man had been threatening to jump, and threw him off, spawning a YouTube hit. The message was clear: no-one cares. Or at least no-one feels empowered to help even if they do care.
The anger has turned outwards in an inchoate rage against those who reflect the powerlessness of the perpetrator.
China is a nation with 4,000 unbroken years of civilisation behind it. Centuries of upheavals, revolutions, uprisings, invasions and famine have never seen such mad malign acts of individual cowardice: it's a Western import. But, as with other feudal societies closer to home, warring and invaded China had its own form of barbarism, notably in the periods when Legalism ruled. One of the reasons many were drawn to communism in the 20th century was the desire to replace feudal values with something more humane. For example, my father used to speak of the horror of the vendetta, when an individual slight would result in the slaying of entire families unto the last babe, a familiar trope for anyone who reads the Bible. However, it has taken the superficial stability of the markets to give us the present mutation.
Although there is a rising urban middle-class, many of the Chinese workers and peasants who gained an iron-rice-bowl security under Mao, with jobs, housing, education and medicine guaranteed, have seen it clawed back by the new capitalists. Naomi Klein says that of 6,000 yuan billionaires, 90% of them are the offspring of the communist cadre who once ran the state assets and now practically own them.
This massive disparity in wealth distribution has a price to pay. Part of the price is mental health.
It's no good simply writing off the perpetrators as "evil". That's a word that prevents you from understanding what's going on and thereby nipping it in the bud. In the Chinese classic, the Tao Teh Ching, Lao Tzu urges us to:
Tackle things before they have appeared.
Cultivate peace and order before confusion and disorder have set in.
He also tells us that:
A tree as big as a man's embrace starts from a tiny sprout.
A tower nine stories high begins with a heap of earth.
A journey of a thousand leagues starts from where your feet stand.
So what's behind it and what can we do to prevent its repetition? The government's immediate answer is to employ security guards, dealing with the symptom and not the cause.
The killers ceased to see others as themselves, only as a reflection of a hated impotence. To me, this is glaring proof that there is such a thing as society. And this is why it is so dangerous to acquiesce to the pessimistic neo-con view, as espoused by Margaret Thatcher and her Tory progeny, that we are all atomised individuals fighting for our own advantage. If that's true then there's no hope for us as a civilisation.
Will China be as ineffectual as the West has been in investigating the causes of such monstrous behaviour? If the conclusion is that dog-eat-dog devil-take-the-hindmost capitalism is a sickness at the heart of the way we organise ourselves, this surely demands a rethinking of values. The capitalist system turns us into rats in a sack, fighting each other, powerless to organise and stop the real threat in society which, across the globe, appears to be coming from the top echelons eager to maximise exploitation.
Lao Tzu also writes:
Fill your house with gold and jade,
And it can no longer be guarded.
Set store by your riches and honour,
And you will only reap a crop of calamities.
That goes for all of us.