Friedrich Nietzsche, that great sage of despair, asked, "What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it…?'" Nietzsche called this idea of eternal recurrence "the heaviest weight."
In the wake of the slaughter in Orlando, Fla., where 49 people were killed and even more injured during an attack early Sunday on a gay nightclub, it seems many are all too eager to carry a similar load. As soon as news broke, pundits and politicians returned to dog-eared scripts to repeat lines memorized long ago.
President Obama, who has spent his presidency yearning for the reality he wants, rather than the one he has, once again downplayed any suggestion that this was another battle in the war on Islamic terror he does not want to fight.
"Over the coming days, we'll uncover why and how this happened," the president promised, referring to a killer who called 911 to proclaim his allegiance to Islamic State.
Obama conceded that it was an "act of terror," but as John Podhoretz noted in the New York Post, referring to "terror" without a modifier is like a doctor discussing "cancer" without identifying its specific form or location; it is a way of talking around the problem without addressing it.
(For her part, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said she was perfectly "happy" to call it "radical Islamic terrorism." Beyond that, she offered little beyond staying the course in her desired third Obama term.)
Obama's tentativeness gave way to conviction when he spoke of how "we need the strength and courage to change" our attitudes toward gays and lesbians. And conviction gave way to certainty when he tried to make this attack into one more example in his brief for gun control.
In this reflexive return to rote-thinking, the president was truly a representative, if not of the American people, then at least much of the media and the political class.
The New York Daily News blamed the attacks on the National Rifle Assn. The only references to "jihad" on its front page were not to a self-proclaimed jihadist but to past cheap shots the newspaper has taken at the NRA. Left-wing pundits flipped on the autopilot and tried to make this slaughter about guns and homophobia (based on the testimony of the killer's father, an apparent Taliban supporter no doubt eager for a different story line).
Meanwhile, many on the right – not to mention a Republican presidential candidate – immediately turned an atrocity into an argument for a ban on Muslim immigration. Such a ban would not have stopped a killer born and raised in the United States, but it would surely encourage more potential "lone wolves" to believe that America regards Islam itself as the enemy. Indeed, banning Muslims as if they were all part of an undifferentiated blob of terrorists just happens to echo Islamic State's propaganda.
"There are only two armies, two camps, two trenches," Muslims and everyone else, the Islamists proclaimed in a recent communiqué.
But the GOP's instant analysts didn't limit themselves to relatively new ideas, like a ban. Donald Trump surrogate and possible running mate Newt Gingrich seized the moment to call for a return of the House Un-American Activities Committee, launched during the 1930s. See, it's not just Democrats who want to go back to the Roosevelt years.
At least Gingrich was pointing to the real problem. As Obama demonstrated in his remarks, too many elites in this country reflexively try to make Islamic terrorism America's fault. Whether the culprit is American imperialism, guns, Guantanamo Bay, or, this week, homophobia, we instantly race to comfortable excuses and comfortable arguments. The true nature and scope of the challenge is too unpleasant to contemplate, and so we return to our scripts and read our lines until the next slaughter provides an opportunity to read them all over again.
It's enough to make you want, as Nietzsche imagined, to "throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus."