In the hours and days following a tragedy, we tend to experience all the stages of grief at once. As some of us log onto the world and discover the news of a senseless shooting, we experience denial as those in other parts of the world already familiar with the news have moved on to anger or bargaining. Like a wave spreading across the globe, millions of people hear the news and react accordingly, and in our new interconnected world of global constancy, it soon becomes a compressed cacophony of anguish. All the colours mix together until our reactions are a murky mass of black.
But as with every human being-instigated tragedy, one word often pushes its way sullenly through the noise. That word is ‘evil’.
In the days since a gunman stormed into a Connecticut elementary school and bafflingly, illogically, horrifically shot dead twenty-seven people – twenty of whom were children around the age of 6 – we’ve heard that word a lot. People are naturally angry, but that anger refracts as different groups blame a target that often reflects their pre-established beliefs and biases: as some blame the ease with which guns can be purchased in the US, others blame the proliferation of violent video games; as some point to a systemic failure of mental health care, others decry a growing secularism. By the time these projectiles of anger reach their targets, they are depleted, dissipated, exhausted. Nothing ends up changing, and so we attempt to mend our disparity: we decide that the gunman was an aberration. We find common ground, and that common ground usually manifests as a dismissal of the perpetrator as some sort of evil being. He is unlike the rest of us, we assure ourselves, and if we cannot agree on which societal factor led to him shooting up a school, we can at least agree on this.
Anything this simple, however, should be treated with suspicion, and the use of the word ‘evil’ is, in itself, complicit.
It was jarring when, years ago, there was a much-publicised case in England in which two kids stood accused of killing a 2-year-old boy they’d lured away from a shopping centre. It was an horrendous story, and I remember being shocked not just by the crime, but by the fact that the perpetrators were almost exactly my age. I’d always assumed that the worst parts of human nature – those that resulted in murder – were learned later in life.
As I watched the local news relay the convictions from England, the word ‘evil’ caught in my ear like tinnitus. The judge, in his sentencing, had used the word to describe the act, and I felt a jarring sensation I could not, at age twelve, properly identify. A part of me knew I needed an explanation, and the word ‘evil’ wasn’t cutting it.
Exactly a decade later, the same network I’d watched the sentencing on broadcast an ad for a new telemovie in which Robert Carlyle played Adolf Hitler. With flashy graphics and punctuating music, the TV informed me I was to tune in to Hitler: The Rise of Evil this coming Sunday night.
If there was any one person in history you could, free of controversy, refer to as evil, it would surely be Hitler. And yet, this titular pronouncement bothered me, just as it had all those years earlier.
‘Evil’ is not a real thing. It is a fantasy novel device, a mystical force of pure malevolence. 99% of the time, it is a hand-wave by authors too lazy to ascribe real motivation to their characters. The concept of a force whose only desire is destruction is one that can be fought without the unpleasant regard for the complex moral quagmire that comes with all wars.
It is so difficult to believe that a human being with whom we are, for all intents and purposes, genetically identical could be responsible for an acts such as his, and so we use a catch-all word to dismiss him. But those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, says Spanish philosopher George Santayana. It’s simply not enough to remember history as a bullet point list of things-that-happened. We have to remember why.
As much as we may be disgusted by their actions to the point of numbness, the man who killed twenty children and the man responsible for the deaths of millions of people were both human beings. And the moment we call them evil, we give ourselves an excuse not to understand them.
It’s high time we ditched the excuse.
Image credit: Kathryn Sprigg