The Carthaginians were some of the richest and most powerful people in the ancient world. A Phoenician colony, Carthage was located in present-day Tunisia. The city was operative from around 800 BCE until 146 BCE, when it was sacked and destroyed by the Romans.
There is something else that was notable about the Carthaginians. This particular ancient culture sacrificed its own children to their gods. The wealth and good fortune of their city-state, Carthaginians believed, could only be assured by pleasing the gods, and their gods were hungry for children. These children, many seemingly only a few weeks old, were taken to ritual locations known as “tophets.” The accumulation of archaeological evidence from Carthage studied in recent decades reveals that the sacrifices appeared to have been carried out year after year. Archaeologists excavating the “tophet” sites have found the cremated remains in over a thousand urns, all containing the remains of sacrificed children.
Literary sources confirm the Carthaginian belief in child sacrifice. The Roman historian Diodorus wrote, “There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping towards the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.” Diodorus also alleged that some elite members of society actually purchased children from poor people and then reared them specifically for sacrifice. The burned remains of the children, often intermingled with those of animals who were also sacrificed with them, were then buried beneath tombstones expressing gratitude and thanks to the gods whose favor was now assured.
Americans have this in common with the Carthaginians. Year after year, the United States sacrifices children at the altar of gun rights. Since the Columbine shootings in 1999, at least 185 people have been killed in school violence, according to the Washington Post—the great majority of them children and teenagers. The Post’s database shows that more than three hundred eleven thousand children have now witnessed gun violence in schools. And school shootings are just a fraction of the death toll: already this year, 142 children (eleven and younger) and 515 teens have been killed by gunshots, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Tallying GVA reports from these last four years, more than four thousand children and teens have been shot and killed.
The Carthaginians believed that the good fortunes of their society or of wealthy individuals could only be maintained if these babies were sacrificed, pure and whole to their exacting gods. The good of many was thus assured by the annihilation of the weakest, the most vulnerable, the most worthy of protection. The same calculation is at play in post-millennial America. The unfettered freedom to carry assault weapons, American society has deemed, is so necessary and so important that sacrificing ten, twenty, or thirty children a year is a good bargain. The Carthaginian children that were rolled into a burning pit of fire were chosen and marked for sacrifice. In the United States, the killings are random—no one knows which children in which unassuming school will confront a killer. No one knows how many children exactly will die. The only certainty is that they will die and that no one will do anything about it.
Looking back into ancient history, child sacrifice seems the epitome of barbarism. And it is this barbarism into which the United States appears to have descended. The right to bear arms—including assault rifles whose entire purpose is to kill large numbers of victims as fast as possible—is more important than the lives of American children. The children of the poor are at particular risk, as those families don’t have the wherewithal to escape to safer schools in exclusive enclaves. But as we saw ten years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, this American gun depravity can strike just about anywhere.
The killings in Uvalde, Texas, are the latest episode of child sacrifice in the United States. On May 24, an eighteen-year-old gunman stormed into Robb Elementary School in the south Texas town. He holed himself up in a fourth-grade classroom. There were only two more days left in the school year. Some children had just received awards for being on the honor roll. There he shot nineteen children and two teachers. Other students and at least one adult were reported to be hospitalized; the death toll may rise further. For those who survive, their lives will be scarred by the trauma of watching one and then another and then another of their classmates being shot along with their teacher.
As with most rituals, America has become practiced in handling the aftermath of school shootings. The security “experts” are lined up and paraded on cable news channels with incredible alacrity, all sporting appropriately solemn faces as they discuss the unfolding horror. In the twenty-four hours immediately after the event, the death toll rises, the parents are told, the country finds out. As is the case with rituals, everything that happens from this point on feels scripted, or rather, is scripted. There is the dead-end outrage, the futile presidential address, and the dogged stance of gun rights advocates insisting that the incident is not about guns at all. Talking points quickly replicate on right-wing channels: teachers should carry weapons; schools should have only one door. Anything to divert the attention from the availability of lethal weapons to any and all.
Those Americans whose children have not been victimized by heavily armed gunmen hug their children close and wonder if the next shooting will be at their children’s school. It very well could be. In the cruelest parallel, just like the tiny bones of child victims from three thousand years ago have to be tested carefully with the most advanced methods, so, too, did the dead of the latest American school shooting. The identity of some of the dead children had to be confirmed by DNA testing.
The barbarity of an America that can bear to witness this over and over again seems as much of an anathema as an ancient culture’s cruel penchant for sacrificing babies to a fire god. It truly takes a craven people to witness not one but two mass shootings in ten days and yet be too paralyzed to ensure that they do not happen again. In the days to come, nineteen small coffins will be buried, and America will see the raw grief of the parents whose worlds have ended. One side will discuss the savagery of making mass killing weapons available so easily, the other will use mental health lingo to insist that such incidents can never be stopped, or that gun control is an ineffectual solution.
Carthaginian child sacrifice ended when the city-state was sacked by the Romans. The culture itself and the belief in the powerful potential of human sacrifice did not end until the culture was annihilated. The day after the tragedy, Texas politicians from Governor Greg Abbott to Senator Ted Cruz arranged themselves on a stage for a press conference, a cabal of white male elders (and a few token women and persons of color in the back) murmuring words about the deaths of brown children. They told the world that Uvalde as a community had “mental health” issues that needed to be addressed. At this point, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke could not bear this dastardly show of feigned solemnity and victim blaming; he came up to the stage and directly addressed Abbott, saying, “This is on you.” He was told to sit down. “You are doing nothing. You are all doing nothing!” O’Rourke said. He was quickly accosted and silenced, and someone among the group of white men gathered on stage yelled, “You’re out of line!” Another was heard to call him a “sick son of a bitch.” Even that intervention appeared to be part of the regular programming.