“Act of pure evil”?

Evil figurines Copy

I was horrified to wake up yesterday morning to news of yet another mass shooting – this one perhaps the worst of them all, if the horror of such things can ever really be compared.

In the day since, my mind keeps coming back to it. I imagine the carnage that must have flashed across everyone’s eyes. I imagine the feelings of terror, despair, and grief.

More than anything, I find myself trying to imagine what must have been going through the shooter’s mind when he decided to take such destructive, senseless action. Two nights ago, a man deliberately and in cold blood slaughtered dozens of people and then himself. He watched himself as he pulled the trigger and rained down terror and chaos on hundreds of innocent people. He then turned the gun on himself and ended his own life.

What feelings and beliefs about himself and others must have been running through his veins to allow such action, to make it feel reasonable, justified, even a pleasure? I just can’t fathom it.

Whatever it was flowing through his veins, many of us have a word for it: evil.

Indeed, President Trump quickly condemned the shooting spree as an “act of pure evil” – in one of his few statements that seemed to foster unity and earn widespread support and appreciation from every corner of the country.

What does it mean to be evil?

What do we mean when we say this? This is not just Trump. In fact, Obama and many others have used similar terminology condemning terrorists and others as “evil.” So what do we really mean by it? What effect does it have?

For some, I think it simply means “really, REALLY bad” or “utterly heinous.” And no descriptor could be more apt for the carnage earlier this week.

But I suspect for many, if not most, “evil” is something more than simply “utterly heinous.”

For them, I think, “evil” suggests that someone’s core intent and essence as a person is to do harm and cause destruction. This predilection is innate, something entirely unavoidable and immutable. In short, evil people are so inherently disgusting, hateful, and egregiously terrible as to nullify their very humanity.

Evil does not exist

My truth is that no person is evil, at least by this second definition. No one is innately, unavoidably bad and rotten. No perpetrator of mass violence was destined to do so from their birth. No.

These killers have come to perform indescribably heinous acts due to the circumstances of their lives: their genetic predispositions, their family upbringing, and the values and beliefs of the culture they were born into.

These acts could have been avoided. These people could have led perfectly good, quiet, ethical lives had they lived under different circumstances.

There is nothing innately rotten about them. They are simply terribly diseased people who failed to get the attention and care they needed.

Why it matters

I can understand why someone might think it’s strange, if not completely inappropriate, for me to focus on this after such senseless violence. There are thousands upon thousands grieving, after all. Why waste my breath ruminating on the idea of “evil” and humanizing the shooter?

Yes, on the surface, condemning something as “evil” might appear to just be a strong condemnation, a way to express how terrible it was in concrete, uncompromising language. What could be wrong with that?

Look deeper. We have many, many other words for “really REALLY bad.”

Yet, out of all of those, the President and others choose “evil.” Why?

By using such religious overtones, we elevate the driving forces at play to the divine, heavenly, Biblical. We displace the core driving factors at play from the human to the non-human. We frame ourselves as the “good guys,” completely separate from that “evil” over there that caused this.

In essence, by calling something “evil”, we actually avoid our own complicity. We blame the devil. We assume that there’s some outside force at place working against us. We fail to truly consider how our own culture and society continuously encourages and glorifies violence. We fail to consider how we work against ourselves.

The truth is this shooting was an entirely predictable outcome of American society in the 21st Century. It has happened many times before and it will happen again. And it actually makes sense that it has happened so many times. After all, our society champions violence and aggression at every turn, whether through our military actions or our “entertainment.” We fail to provide proper care and support for those who have undergone trauma or who suffer from mental illness.

No more acts of pure evil

It’s time for our society to move past childish abstractions and deflections like “good” and “evil”. It’s time for us to take responsibility for the mayhem we create for ourselves. It’s time to look in the mirror.

No – this shooter wasn’t “evil.” He wasn’t innately broken or defective. He was an American human, a product of our own society. He could very well have been a happy, productive, law-abiding citizen. Those 59 victims could very well be alive right now – if our society was different than it is now.

The sooner we come to terms with that, the sooner we heal, the more likely we are to prevent such terrible acts from happening again.


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