Elusive Trope's picture

    There is No Evil

    Megan McCardle provided a prime example, as linked to by Michael, of one particular take on what transpired in Newtown as well as other mass shooting that tends to get in my craw [emphasis mine]:

    Most crimes are motivated by unlovely impulses that are at least comprehensible: the desire for money, sex, respect, revenge.  We don't do these things...But we can understand why people want to--we know what someone is after when they hold up a liquor store, or even kills their spouse for the insurance money.  Understanding is not sanction: these crimes still have the power to anger and horrify.  But they're comprehensible, and that comprehensibility is surprisingly comforting.  

    The alternative is Newtown.  When one tries to picture the mind that plans it, one quickly comes to a dead end....Trying to climb this mountain of wickedness is like trying to climb a glass wall with your bare hands. What happened there is pure evil, and evil, unlike common badness, gives an ordinary mind no foothold.

    Since we can't understand it, we can't change it.  And since we can't change it, our best hope is to box it in.

    The notion of evil when it is used to describe such heinous acts is usually not describing it as something morally wrong or something that is a cause or source of suffering, injury, or destruction.  Instead, it is used to describe the acts arising from an evil force, power, or personification, in other words, arising from the actions something non-human or un-human.

    When McCardle calls Lanza "pure evil," she is removing him and his actions from the realm of human potential.  It is like walking outside into a snow storm in early summer and saying it is "unnatural." Whether we like it or not, Lanza is human and his behavior is within the range of what it means to be human, just as freak June snow storm, while uncommon, is still very much a part of the natural spectrum of weather conditions.

    There is a sort of "natural" reaction to not want to associate one's self as being part of the same team or tribe as someone like Lanza.  "He's not one of us."  But it goes deeper than this, I believe.  To acknowledge that Lanza is one of us to acknowledge that the heinous act he commited is somehow, somewhere within us if our nuture/nature circumstances were somehow just a little different.

    Hitler and the Nazis become monsters because we don't want to believe our society could commit such acts as the holocaust if faced with similar circumstances. 

    And this is why accepting Lanza as human is  important.  This is why it's a big deal if someone wants to call Lanza pure evil or the Nazis monsters.

    In McCardle's world, she can comprehend the spouse who shoots someone for the insurance money or, I would guess, the lover who has cheated with another. Lanza had a reason for what he did.  Not knowing exactly what those reason are does not make them incomprehensible, just not known. 

    One theory thrown out there is that the age of the kids was about the time Lanza started to get bullied for being different.  It is comprehensible, which is as McCradle points out not the same as sanctioning, that Lanza was seeking some kind of revenge, and some kind psychological closure. 

    I worked with schizophrenics for a number of years and during that time all of the "bizarre" behavior and statements I witnessed always made sense once one understood the information the individual believed they were receiving about the world around them and their place in it.  If one believes that another is trying to steal one's soul while one sleeps at night, one might go to some extreme measures to prevent that.  (I would note that in those years at a facility with over 70 schizophrenics living under the same roof, there was actually very little actual violence).

    If you see someone whacking a piece of rope on the ground, you might think he or she is being bizarre, that is until you know that they had stepped on the piece of rope and believed it to be a snake.

    As humans, just as any living creature, we act with purpose, and we act to deal with the world as best as we can.  Because of language, that purpose and our understanding of what the best course of action can be can become twisted.  We can be destructive, we can act in ways that we as a society is morally and ethically wrong.  When the "wires in our brains" get crossed, we can look to the outside world as bizarre and even non-human.

    There was a time when the schizophrenics were locked away in the most horrendous conditions because those at the time did not understand their suffering and plight.

    If we believe the Nazis are monsters, we are more likely to repeat history.

    If we turn those like Lanza into pure evil, we are less likely able to develop the support and interventions necessary to facilitate the decrease of those who end up believing creating such scenes of death and grief as means to an end.  We end up saying like McCardle does: Since we can't understand it, we can't change it.

    But we can understand it.  We may not like it.  It may make us sick to the stomach.  But we can understand it.  If we face it as one of the faces of humanity.




    Great essay

    Nicely said. When I read the McArdle piece and got to her "pure evil" moment I thought "And it's pure laziness on her part to say so!" But there was so much other stuff in the article to respond to that I did not respond to that. Thank you for unpacking it.

    The ever-affable Will Smith once got into trouble when talking about how actors portray villains. Smith said that Hitler didn't think he himself was evil and had a whole set of reasons for doing what he did that made sense to him. I think Smith's exact words were something like "Hitler didn't get up in the morning and think to himself 'I'm going to go out and be evil today.'" You would have thought, by the reactions, that Smith had cut the ears off a kitten on live TV. He ended up having to apologize profusely for saying something that was completely true....

    I think one of the most important films in recent years was Downfall because in part of the way it portrayed Hitler. New Yorker film critic David Denby takes on the role of McCardle:[5]

    As a piece of acting, Ganz's work is not just astounding, it's actually rather moving. But I have doubts about the way his virtuosity has been put to use. By emphasizing the painfulness of Hitler's defeat Ganz has [...] made the dictator into a plausible human being. Considered as biography, the achievement (if that's the right word) [...] is to insist that the monster was not invariably monstrous – that he was kind to his cook and his young female secretaries, loved his German shepherd, Blondi, and was surrounded by loyal subordinates. We get the point: Hitler was not a supernatural being; he was common clay raised to power by the desire of his followers. But is this observation a sufficient response to what Hitler actually did?

    But then there is the response of Hitler biographer Sir Ian Kershaw who wrote in The Guardian:

    Knowing what I did of the bunker story, I found it hard to imagine that anyone (other than the usual neo-Nazi fringe) could possibly find Hitler a sympathetic figure during his bizarre last days. And to presume that it might be somehow dangerous to see him as a human being – well, what does that thought imply about the self-confidence of a stable, liberal democracy? Hitler was, after all, a human being, even if an especially obnoxious, detestable specimen. We well know that he could be kind and considerate to his secretaries, and with the next breath show cold ruthlessness, dispassionate brutality, in determining the deaths of millions. Of all the screen depictions of the Führer, even by famous actors, such as Alec Guinness or Anthony Hopkins, this is the only one which to me is compelling. Part of this is the voice. Ganz has Hitler's voice to near perfection. It is chillingly authentic.
    The line I think quite important here:
    And to presume that it might be somehow dangerous to see him as a human being – well, what does that thought imply about the self-confidence of a stable, liberal democracy?


    Winston Churchill rallied his countrymen to defeat "these evil men, these Nazis." His simple phrase strikes me as packed with meaning. You may do something monstrous, but you do not have the excuse of being a monster. You are and remain a human being who has chosen to do evil, and that is far worse.

    The Nazis set, hopefully for all time, the benchmark for evil. But it's crucial to grasp that virtually an entire nation, even if wilfully blind to the worst atrocities carried out in their name, bought into the overall sick ethos. Not monsters -- real people who liked good food and drink, celebrated holidays, and loved their kids and neighbors.

    That's the problem with wars. We always see them as conflicts between good and evil -- with us, needless to say, as the good guys. That certainty is a trait we share with the Nazis, Osama bin Laden and even Adam Lanza. They were only human, so they could be wrong. Just as we can. A good rule of thumb is, if your solution to a problem is to start killing people, you've probably made an error of judgment somewhere along the line.

    To sum up, there's a fine line between good and evil, so we should be very cautious in calling things one or the other. But murder, especially mass murder, pretty clearly crosses that line. Starting wars is mass murder.


    McArdle's "pure evil" is too Manichean by half as you suggest, but there is a better argument to be made that might lead one to similarly unfortunate conclusions.  Almost all of the young men who decide to do something like this have never done anything remotely comparable before.  Unlike most homicides, they aren't committed by someone who has already committed crimes before.  Also, they tend to plan carefully and don't plan to exhibit any particular warnings signs.  Some are reported as being "kind of quiet," but tend to actually behave in a fashion that looks more "normal" to many people around them just before they begin to kill.  Co-workers of Charles Whitman reported that he seemed unusually upbeat in the week just prior to his slaughter.

    All of this means that even with a much better, much more comprehensive system for mental health, we probably can't predict these events in a way that would allow us to circumvent them entirely.  Frequently, "evil" has been used to describe forces that ultimately can't be brokered with in any meaningful way.  When it comes to the baseline potential for these events, she might be right.  None of this means that "evil" is the right label or that we shouldn't pursue a better system for dealing with mental health.

     Frequently, "evil" has been used to describe forces that ultimately can't be brokered with in any meaningful way.

    The name Ted Bundy jumps to mind. 

    You are very much correct about many of these mass shooters not exhibiting the signs that would lead others to intervene.  But like other health care systems, there is crisis intervention and then there is crisis prevention in the mental health system.  If the system is effective, then the crisis intervention is not required because the crisis never manifests itself in a manner that requires intervention.

    From a crisis prevention system, one works to develop an atmosphere, environment and culture, whether at a school, home or community at large, that facilitates the processing of emotions and thoughts in healthy manner.

    People generally wait until some state of mind occurs that interferes with their day to day functioning before seeking therapy, if they seek it at all.  This is in part because they believe they don't need a shrink, shrinks are only for people who can't handle things on their own.  Of course, men in this culture have a particularly difficult time processing their feelings and thoughts with another person, but it is something which is also true of women.

    Personally I think everybody would benefit from seeing a good therapist a few times a year, if not more.  And if I rattle on, I would be envisioning some liberal village partaking in a healing group hug.

    But I would end that on a school-level, the mental health system would be one that facilitates an environment where a bully is not tolerated, and should one appear, the victims would feel they are in a school that will support them and immediately work to eliminate the threat.  It would be a mental health system that would provide the school with the resources to deal with the bully and the victims.  It would be a mental health system that facilitate a healthy resolution to the matter. 

    Just the other day, I saw another gay teen who committed suicide because they were bullied.  We can't eliminate this entirely, but there is sure as hell a lot more we can do about it. 


    From the President's remarks at his press conference today:


    We know this is a complex issue that stirs deeply held passions and political divides.  And as I said on Sunday night, there’s no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.  We’re going to need to work on making access to mental health care at least as easy as access to a gun.  We’re going to need to look more closely at a culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence.  And any actions we must take must begin inside the home and inside our hearts.

    But the fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing.  The fact that we can’t prevent every act of violence doesn’t mean we can’t steadily reduce the violence, and prevent the very worst violence.


    In just that portion of his remarks, I see reflected points made in various threads by you, artappraiser, Articleman, DF, and erica, just for starters.  Biden is going to run the task force that is to come up with recommendations by January.  Yes, that would be January of 2013.  

    Its comments like that makes me glad I supported him from the start.

    "Frequently, "evil" has been used to describe forces that ultimately can't be brokered with in any meaningful way."

    This is a key line and a useful observation. Anyone with a decent imagination and a bit of understanding about how humans operate can understand a dark thought process and even recreate it after the fact (which is why a capable actor can amaze his or her fans by portraying the descent into "evil" and coming out apparently unscathed.) In this sense, McCardle's insistence that Adam Lanza's behavior is beyond human understanding is just silly, or perhaps reveals an unwillingness to admit that she doesn't know who among her own acquaintances might be capable of similar acts.

    But, McCardle's dissembling failure of imagination aside, understanding the thought process is not the same as divining who is contemplating dark acts and figuring out a way of convincing them not to do them. Myself, I don't think "evil" is a very useful term for describing those who present us with this challenge. "Unmanageable" doesn't seem serious enough. "Incorrigible" seems too permanent. Sociopathic? Maybe.

    Excellent, AT.  To declare to ourselves that a human being is pure evil is one way to dehumanize them.  And dehumanizing people historically has been perhaps the most invoked rationalization or justification for inflicting cruelty on them.

    This one is inching its way up my "on deck" stack: David Livingstone Smith's Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others.  I must just have a thing for cheery stuff.

    Might have to check out that book.  The title does remind me of Judith Butler's book Bodies that Matter, which looks at how we make certain others (women, homosexuals, etc) figuratively matter less in such a way that they literally cease to exist, i.e. have matter.

    God said to Abraham


    In explaining what beyond good and evil means, a rather right wing professor explained that Nietzsche was expressing a belief that there is no good and there is no evil; there is only good show and bad show; effective and ineffective.

    As far as I am concerned this perspective is not that far from some utilitarian argument; though much darker.

    From everything I have read Abraham was not even monotheistic; rather he ended up favoring one deity over all others.

    The shooter in Newtown performed the most evil of acts as far as I am concerned and I could give a damn what deity he was conversing with.

    On the other hand, I would bet that some of our drone attacks kill a baby or two along with completing the assassinations of  'evil' conjurers.

    I become less relativistic from time to time I guess.

    They keep playing Shutter Island. I watched it once and can barely catch more than a half hour of that movie after that first viewing.

    He had been one of the first units to make it into Dachau. There were still German soldiers there and they were captured.

    Upon viewing the bodies in some mass graves and discovering the prisoners who looked like Zombies; the soldiers gathered the Germans together and shot them dead!

    If I had been there at that time and place; I most certainly would have joined in this celebration.

    NAZI's were evil in my humble opinion.

    John C Calhoun was evil in my humble opinion.

    That is all I got.




    What do you mean by evil, then?  It sounds as though you're saying it amounts to particularly horrific wrongdoing, or something like that. 

    To question whether there is such a thing as "pure evil", or what that might mean, is not, I think, to deny that there is horrific wrongdoing.  Is labeling a person or an act "pure evil" or "evil" mainly a way of adding an exclamation point (or two or three) to that? 

    Oh I have been working on a post called: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

    Horrific wrongdoing is evil; pure evil in my humble opinion.

    Systemic wrongdoing is evil; pure evil.

    I hear Masters of War every frickin time I see some NRA rep spewing out their bullshite and I 'feel' the evil.

    Evil can be a color, it can be a musical note, it can be a scene from a Tarantino movie, it can be reflected in the look of horror of some of those children who survived the mini Holocaust in CT. 

    All we have as far as expressing ourselves are exclamation points and hues and drum beats.

    What do I know.

    Like pornography, I know it when I see it, hear it or feel it!

    If I had been there at that time and place, I don't know what I would have done.  There is also the scene from the Band of Brothers of when they entered one the camps for the first time, and they reacted a little differently.  I can imagine myself quite willingly joining in the celebration.  I also would like to believe that I would take a higher road. 

    As I pointed out in the post, there are a number of definitions of evil, most of which would describe the Nazis.  So, yes, they were evil, by some definitions. I would not say you were wrong to go around and call them evil.  That is unless your intent was to say that they had somehow given up their human-ness.  That they had become some thing 'other' than human.  That if you and I had joined in the celebration, we would have to still say we executed human being.  Maybe justifiably so.  Our conscience and our god(s) would explain it to us later.

    I believe that the NAZI's gave up their humanity.

    I believe the Masters of War gave up their humanity and I would not remove Nobel from that although he found humanity later on in life.

    I believe the NRA has given up its humanity (even though it is a corporate entity) and it has given up its humanity for money and power. Not all members of the NRA have given up their humanity and many NAZI's did not give up their humanity.

    Orly Taitz as innocuous as she is remains one of the espousers of evil. She has recently claimed that Obama had the shooter drugged and sent to shoot the babies in CT so that he could take away all of 'our' guns.

    She is not just a foreigner, she is evil. She says what she says for money and power with absolutely no belief in truth or facts or normal protocols; just as the NRA; just as radio NAZI's; just as the FOX fascists.

    Oh there is evil out there to be sure.

    This notion of "giving up one's humanity" through commission of particularly horrible acts troubles me.  Isn't the doing of evil acts also part of humanity, of what humans are capable of doing and sometimes do?

    Having a word such as evil serves the powerful emotive and sometimes social purpose of galvanizing an individual or collective responses to the commission of acts which are judged intolerable.  ("I/we are going to do something about this.")  I would argue that the responses to evil acts can also be evil.  It would seem as though historically, evil responses to perceived evil acts are often "justified" by claiming that those on the receiving end are less than fully human, and therefore whatever might otherwise constrain the cruelty humans inflict on other humans in other contexts does not apply to the one in question. 

    It seems that retaliatory evil acts can also be ineffective or even counter-productive in reducing the future extent of evil behavior.

    Thank you, Trope, for bringing the discussion back to its roots in human responsibility.

    "Instead [evil], it is used to describe the acts arising from an evil force, power, or personification, in other words, arising from the actions something non-human or un-human."

    We may as well say that the devil made him do it or that he was possessed.  And, now he's dead so we can wash our hands of it.  I'm also concerned about those who want to write this off in more scientific language, where the devil is replaced with a diagnosis and the mystical is replaced with determinism.


    Not all sociopaths become serial killers (some become hedge fund managers).  It is interesting that in spite of all of the advances we have made, we still are unclear about free will.  Some of the advances in the study of the brain indicates we have less free will than previously thought.  This makes me think of the Law & Order episode where the defendant's lawyer attempted to claim he couldn't be held responsible for killing a black man for taking his cab because racism was a mental disease, just like road rage, and he was thus unable to control his actions.

    I hadn't thought about it in exactly these terms, but should Lanza be seen as destined to commit the mass shooting.  Was there some moment, even without professional mental health or law enforcement intervention, that could have made him move down a slightly different path.  No less tormented than he obviously was, but not an infamous mass shooter. We will never know the answer to that question, but which side on falls on regarding one's speculative answer says a lot about how one views not only human nature, but our roles as neighbors within a larger community. 

    Okay, I hereby render unto Trope the Dayly Line of the Day Award for this here Dagblog Site, given to all of him from all of me for this gem:

    Not all sociopaths become serial killers (Some become Hedge fund managers).


    And how much human suffering; how much blood letting; how much misery has been caused by these evil bastards? ha!

    I seem to remember an Arab, a beach, a hot day and an author quite familiar to you.

    And it was a hot day, and what, did my mother die? and you want me to confess my sins? the sun was so bright. 

    all one can say really

    Megan McCardle, who in the same piece advocated training 6+ year olds for Banzai charges against armed psychopaths, another nutty right wing Coulter/Malkin wannabe.

    Nice skewering of her blather.

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