Naming Evil

Fleeing the violence in Las Vegas, October 1, 2017/David Becker/Getty Images

I write today in the bloody wake of the most recent in an increasingly frequent series of mass killings–this time, the deaths of 58 country music fans at the hands of a gunman poised 32 floors above the concert venue with an arsenal of 23 weapons and a meticulous plan to wreak the most carnage in the least amount of time. As is their custom, the news media first headlined the numbers of deaths. When I awoke on Monday, the number killed was reported to be 20; by the time I left for work, it was over 50. As soon as that number rose above 49, with the ardor and precision of baseball statisticians, the sensation-mongers scurried to name this massacre the “deadliest shooting in modern US history”–with “since 1949” cleverly hidden in the fine print. And they printed top-ten lists and maps with clever computer graphics to illustrate the horror.

Scrambling to get a handle on this latest inscrutable tragedy with numbers and lists made sense because of so much else that could be neither named nor quantified. One question was what to call the killer–besides, of course, Stephen Paddock, aged 61, real-estate speculator and high-stakes gambler who lived in Mesquite, Nevada, and was the son of a bank robber once on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. The debate quickly focused on whether to call Paddock a terrorist. Donald Trump demurred even as both supporters and his detractors insisted on the term.

There is, of course, a lexical definition, and since American Heritage, 5th ed., is my lexicon of choice, I’ll start there, where terrorism is defined as “the use of violence or the threat of violence, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political goals.” Etymology is of minimal use in the current debate because the term initially referred to the Jacobins and their Reign of Terror during the French Revolution (1795). In the modern sense, the word was first used in 1944 to describe the actions of the Zionists against the British in Palestine (1944). Of course, in current parlance, it refers almost exclusively to those using terror to advance the cause of radical Islam.

The Reign of Terror: Heads of aristocrats on pikes/Public domain

To use such a legally fraught term accurately, though, we must turn to the law. According to Nevada statute, “’Act of terrorism’ means any act that involves the use or attempted use of sabotage, coercion or violence which is intended to cause great bodily harm or death to the general population” (NRS 202.4415). However, federal law contains a more precise requirement of motive: “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping” (18 US Code §2331).

Despite the plethora of details emerging daily about the life of Stephen Paddock, one thing we do not know is anything about his motives. Recent headlines underscore the increasingly frenzied obsession to explain the killings:

The issue of motive provided a silent backdrop to the question raised in Shankar Vedantam’s Oct. 5 edition of The Hidden Brain: “Classifying Attacks: Mental Illness or Terrorism?”  Psychologist Azim Shariff and his colleagues at UC Irvine researched this question with several hundred volunteers by “giv[ing] them accounts of different kinds of [hypothetical] mass shooting events with different kinds of perpetrators” and asking them “to judge if a shooter suffered from a mental disorder.”  They discovered, “[P]eople high in anti-Muslim prejudice . . . are very unlikely to perceive the Muslim shooter to be mentally ill. But [they] are completely comfortable in saying that the Christian shooter was mentally ill.” Vedantam suggested that these findings tacitly assign blame to those they call terrorists while exculpating those they see as mentally ill–which they probably do in the minds of those who participated in the study.

William Hogarth (1734)

My understanding of these distinctions, though, is significantly different. In my view, when we call someone mentally ill, we are not making a decision about his culpability, only about his motives. A madman is mad because his actions are senseless and his motivations, opaque. To call someone a terrorist, by contrast, is to elevate his motivation to the level of ideology. What he does may be heinous, but he acts based on reason and observation–on the belief that actions have consequences.

The confusion about what label to give Stephen Paddock–madman or terrorist, psychopath or ideologue–is only minimally my concern. I believe, rather, that our most significant confusion results from the postmodern reluctance to name the evil perpetrated in Sin City a week ago today.

To his credit, Donald Trump revealed no such hesitation. In “What’s Missing from Our ‘Evil’ Debate?” , CNN religion editor Daniel Burke sums up Trump’s references: “The day after the massacre in Las Vegas, President Donald Trump used the word ‘evil’ three times during a brief speech at the White House. He called the shootings an ‘act of pure evil,’ said evil cannot shatter the country’s unity and urged Americans to pray for a day when ‘evil is banished.'” Pundits scurried to explain away the very concept of evil. Mark Larrimore, a religion professor at the New School in New York, went so far as to suggest that in calling the Las Vegas carnage evil, Trump “seemed to be saying that it came out of nowhere and was beyond anything we could comprehend.” I would suggest quite the contrary–that the willingness to name evil represents a world view based on moral foundations generally dismissed in our secular age and to hold people responsible for their choices and their actions.

The CNN piece I have linked above continues with a solid presentation of historical and contemporary understandings of evil. For instance, in Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, Susan Neiman contrasts “natural evil” (e.g. hurricanes and earthquakes) with “moral evil,” which allows both an assessment of motivation and an assignment of culpability. Neiman’s argument derails, however, when she begins discussing a species of evil “committed by people who do not have evil intentions.” She misconstrues Hannah Arendt’s brilliant exposition of the “banality of evil” and turns her consideration to “political leaders who refuse to consider gun restrictions, or oil executives who exploit the earth.” Sadly, though, this sociopolitical definition of evil has become the sole platform for discussing sin not only in public discourse, but also from behind the pulpits of many mainstream churches.

Quoted in the same article, James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, offers a more nuanced explanation of evil dating back to St. Augustine, who believed that “the possibility of evil was a risk built into creation when God allowed humans to have free will.” Smith considers evil an absence rather than a presence, a corruption of the good, and reminds us that calling an act “pure evil” is thus “bad metaphysics.” However, he makes the further and salient point that “size is irrelevant to evil.” That is, killing 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas–or killing 2,996 people in the attacks on 9/11–is no more or less evil than the murders that occur on the streets of Main Street, USA, every day.

This vocabulary of evil–and good–activates the squirm instinct in many enlightened denizens of the 21st century. However, a moral framework need not be the purview only of religion. Even evolutionary biologists recognize a scientific basis for morality and values. Discussing his own book, The Science of Good and Evil (2004), Michael Shermer states,

I build a scientific case for the evolutionary origins of the moral sentiments and for the ways in which science can inform moral decisions. As a species of social primates, we have evolved a deep sense of right and wrong to accentuate and reward reciprocity and cooperation and to attenuate and punish excessive selfishness and free riding. On the constitution of human nature are built the constitutions of human societies.

Shermer supplements his discussion of evolutionary ethics by turning to neuroethics, a sub discipline that quantifies contribution to “the well-being of conscious creatures” as the measure of morality (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, 2010)–which sounds a lot like the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham to me.

In any case, if we aspire to inhabit a moral landscape both higher and less slippery than our current one,  we must forgo the sensationalism inherent in top-ten lists of mass murders and the hunger for salacious life details of those who achieve their fifteen minutes of fame. We must realize that some people are mentally ill and thus by definition not responsible for their actions; that others act according to a system of faith or thought–religion or ideology–that they believe situates their behavior in a realm beyond morality; and that some, knowing good and evil, choose the latter. And we must be willing to name that evil before we can ever hope to find a solution to the moral malaise that afflicts society today.

Francisco Goya (1795)


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