You can determine the excesses of an era by its martyrs. Essential to the story of a martyr is that they did not wish to die but rather chose or accepted death over some unacceptable alternative. The alternative — the thing being selected against — contains the fervor of the age, and it signs its name in the blood of martyrs.
On April 30, as college students at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte were gathering for an end-of-year concert, a gunman entered a university building and began firing. As campus police rushed to respond, Riley Howell, a 21-year-old student charged and tackled the shooter, bringing him down with such force that the killer reportedly complained of his injuries to first responders. Howell was shot three times in the process, with the final shot fired at such close range that the barrel of the gun burned his skin. Howell died of his injuries.
A week later, on Tuesday, a pair of shooters stormed STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado and began to rehearse a now-familiar pattern of sudden, catastrophic bloodshed. When one of the shooters entered his literature classroom, 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo lunged for his gun and startled him, forcing him into retreat; several others subsequently tackled and pinned the murderer. But by that point, Castillo had already been shot. He, too, died of his injuries.
Authorities in both cases have confirmed that Howell’s and Castillo’s efforts to disrupt and disable their respective killers likely saved the lives of their peers. Both have been hailed as heroes, which they are. But they’re more than that, too: They’re martyrs for self-giving love against a pervasive climate of nihilism.
It isn’t that Howell or Castillo were the first people ever to heroically interfere with in-progress mass killings; there have been many cases of school employees, from teachers to security guards to custodians, who have done that. But Howell and Castillo were young and untrained, except by the general sense that all school-aged kids now have, which tells them that shootings are a fact of American education and that one ought to be prepared for them psychologically.
Under those conditions, it’s easy to give into despair or default to anxious self-protection, assuming the worst of others and giving no quarter to hope or heroism. This seems to have been the overall public-policy response, as produced by our political leadership and the constituencies they answer to, to our age of mass killings. It would make sense to see it manifest in ordinary people as well, especially those whose lives are directly implicated in this slow-unfolding crisis.
But against despair and against nihilism, Howell and Castillo laid down their lives — so that others might live. Theirs was a sacrifice to be not only appreciated but also witnessed, as the term “martyr” implies; it is important to see what the price of loving human life is in our day and age, and this is it. It’s worth asking what sort of era forces its young people to choose death in order to love life, absent a war or some other cataclysm. But perhaps the war is already here, and the cataclysm has simply spread so slowly that some of us have failed to see it for what it is.
But Howell and Castillo did, and theirs is a martyrdom that condemns our age.
Elizabeth Bruenig is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post.