Ethan Crumbley
Ethan Crumbley, 15, charged with first-degree murder in a high school shooting, poses in a jail booking photograph. Oakland County Sheriff via REUTERS

The family of a student wounded in the shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan in November is suing the school district and its officials for $100 million for failing to prevent the mass shooting that left four students dead and another seven injured.

The claim states the school ignored a bevy of evidence leading up to the attack (including warnings from students and parents about the alleged shooter, Ethan Crumbley) which could have prevented the atrocity. A separately filed state suit will seek an additional $100 million.

Among evidence brought to bear in the suit is a disturbing message Crumbley posted on Twitter the night before the shooting: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. See you tomorrow Oxford.” Initial media reports noted the first part of this post quotes a clip from the video game Fallout 4, a post-apocalyptic action role playing game set in a nuclear war-torn future. Crumbley — an avid gamer– seems likely to have repurposed the quote from this game as a grim precursor to his horrific act.

But the quote itself has a complicated history, far more ancient and nuanced than the cowardly shooter probably realized. This history deserves some brief consideration in light of Crumbley’s bastardized evocation of the phrase.

The quote is a loose translation of chapter 11, verse 32 of the ancient Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita (itself a section of book 6 of the lengthy epic poem the Mahabharata), written sometime during the second half of the first millennium BCE. In the moments before a massive war is set to break out, the warrior-prince Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna (an incarnation of the god Vishnu) have a discussion — 700 verses worth — about Arjuna’s apprehensions (as he stares down an opposing force filled with his own friends and kin) and his duty as a warrior.

Krishna eventually reveals to Arjuna his true form as the Supreme Being — he is, in effect, the physical manifestation of the entire universe. The revelation and vision frighten Arjuna, who asks Krishna who he really is and what he wants. This question elicits the famous response: “I am Death, destroyer of worlds…” Krishna’s words and supernatural presence give Arjuna courage. He ultimately decides to fight, despite his earlier reservations.

The exchange between Arjuna and Krishna in the Gita epitomizes the larger Mahabharata poem’s struggles with the basic nature of war and its presumed necessity when the system of cosmic duty and cosmic order get thrown out of whack. During their conversation, when Arjuna balks at the very idea of war, Krishna tells him: “Whenever righteousness (dharma) becomes lax, O Arjuna, and injustice (adharma) arises, then I send myself forth to protect the good and bring evildoers to destruction; for the secure establishment of dharma, I come into being age after age…I was born to destroy the destroyers.”

To oversimplify things a bit (or a lot, really), the poem seems to espouse the concept or basic principle of “just war” theory. The poem suggests that we should only pursue war after all other options fail. But that once we do decide to fight, we should see the war out to its end. War, Krishna suggests, should be waged if it represents fighting for the (rather nebulous) sake of “good.”

The poem walks a fine line between accepting this larger reality of the “justness” — under certain situations — of war and the horror of what this reality necessitates for the humans who are required to effectuate it. And, I should probably say, as a steadfast pacifist, it’s the most difficult facet of this enormously complex poem for me to get to grips with.

On July 16, 1945, at the appropriately named Trinity test site in New Mexico, as he watched the mushroom cloud billow on the horizon, nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer reflected on this particular scene from the Gita, as he later admitted in an interview.

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita,” recalled the famous physicist who led the team that developed the bomb.

“Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty. And to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form, and says: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

The unbridled power of the successful nuclear bomb test, its destructive capabilities, the horrors it presaged for humanity all came crashing down upon Oppenheimer in a replay of Arjuna’s paralytic stare at the true omnipotent multiversal form of Krishna/Vishnu. Or, perhaps, he imagined he’d tapped into that cosmic power and unleashed it.

“Physicists have known sin,” he later opined. “And this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” The sin was made manifest less than a month later at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events which Oppenheimer declared “dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war.”

The moral consequences of his involvement in the creation of the atomic bomb haunted Oppenheimer, even after he received numerous awards and merits for his work bringing the bomb into existence.

This sort of self-reflection, the inner struggle with dharmic duty, agonizing over the justness and injustice of violence and war expressed by Arjuna and Oppenheimer, likely never occurred to Ethan Crumbley. I’m also confident he didn’t understand the full context of the quote before he deployed it as a grim warning the night before he committed an act of domestic terrorism. I’m sure he just thought it sounded “cool.”

It’s Oppenheimer’s own citation of the passage “I am become Death,” to which Fallout 4 makes direct allusion, that makes this point clear, as does the game’s context of a future-world destroyed by nuclear war. So there’s a connective thread linking these three scenes of horrific violence. The difference is that Arjuna and Oppenheimer recognized the darkness of violence, war, and human tragedy, even as they reluctantly participated in it. Crumbley’s infantile evocation of the verse bastardizes its import and impact and undermines its pointed moral ambiguity.

Justifying violence on any level increases the likelihood that it will occur in these unimaginable (yet increasingly more frequent) locales, like the halls and classrooms of a school. And the madness and malignancy of gun culture in America make it easier for deranged individuals to commit atrocious acts of violence.

As an educator and a father, I think about this more often than I’d like to. Humanity has been grappling with the complex issue of violence for millennia. But in many ways the violence and our perception of it have never seemed so senseless and thoughtless.

Dr. Andrew M. McClellan is a lecturer in classics and humanities at San Diego State University. He has published numerous works on violence and horror in ancient literature and culture, and the reception of ancient literature in modern society. His book Abused Bodies in Roman Epic was published recently by Cambridge University Press.