In some ways it is unwise to speak too soon about such tragedies as took place in Virginia yesterday. Way too many questions remain unanswered, and the grieving process must be allowed to do its full work. Silence and prayers may be the best response for some days to come.
Yet many have already rushed in to pass judgment or provide commentary. Two of course are totally predictable. Those who need no excuse to bash America were quick to point fingers and speak about a blood-soaked and violence-ravaged America. And the gun control crowd has been all over the media, telling us this is proof positive that all weapons must be banned, even though the actual evidence on this issue is mixed at best.
But it is not to those controversies that I want to turn, at least not yet. Instead I intend to offer just a few random thoughts about the nature of evil. When terrible massacres like this take place, we are once again forced to confront the reality of evil, even though in less dramatic days most of the West wants to deny that such a thing as evil exists.
In an age of moral relativism, postmodernism, and secularism, notions of good and evil are either conspicuous by their absence, or understood in much different categories than most of mankind is historically used to.
The truth is, no one has a final and complete answer as to why the Virginia Tech tragedy occurred. But it seems that some worldviews might provide a better framework for trying to make sense of it than others. None will be perfect, but those worldviews which do not deny the reality of evil, but take it seriously, will be better placed to provide a platform from which we can begin to think about such things.
As such, after the initial knee-jerk reactions are offered, hopefully more sober and morally reflective comments will be found in the media. However, one item I found, even though penned within hours of the tragedy, does offer a bit of common sense, moral wisdom, and helpful reflection.
I refer to a symposium called by the editors of nationalreviewonline, appearing on April 17, 2007. Four individuals were called upon to offer a quick and brief response to the shooting. Some of the comments made by these four are worth drawing attention to.
For example, Matthew Franck, a political science prof at Radford University, offered some incisive remarks. He begins by referring to Australian film director Peter Weir. “Just the other day I was describing, to a friend who had not seen it, a pivotal scene in Peter Weir’s 1985 film Witness. A little Amish boy who witnessed a brutal murder has been caught by his family handling the .38 revolver belonging to the wounded Philadelphia policeman who has brought the boy home to Lancaster County. His old grandfather chastises him, pointing out that the ‘gun of the hand’ has only one real use, to kill people, and killing is always wrong. But what about killing bad men? asks the boy. Can you see into men’s souls and tell the good ones from the bad? his grandfather replies. I see what they do, says the boy.”
He continues, “There is wisdom on both sides of this exchange, both the ancient and the boy grasping part of the truth (though, I confess, I think the boy somewhat wiser). What makes their conversation possible is their shared belief that there is such a thing as evil. Yesterday, at Virginia Tech, evil struck, and the first requirement for us (as I heard Bill Bennett say this morning on the radio) is to call it by its right name.”
Franck is aware of how much of the discussion about the case will proceed: “Professional explainers will soon be setting to work on this case, analyzing what happened (or what they speculate might have happened) to the perpetrator of the horror to prompt him to it. ‘Evil’ is not likely to be in their vocabulary. Pathology of this sort or that will be diagnosed; maybe even a brain-chemistry explanation will be advanced. I mean no disrespect to my friends in psychology when I say that all such accounts, however true they might indeed prove to be, can never be more than partial. Human beings are responsible moral agents with free will, and in the end a willing actor had to pull that trigger. Do we really have a better explanation than our ancestors who believed a man could be possessed by evil – even by Evil Incarnate?”
He then cites an important thinker who had much to say about evil: “C.S. Lewis’s devil Screwtape tells his young apprentice Wormwood: ‘Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. . . . [W]hen they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics’.”
Concludes Franck, “Modern university education seems bent much of the time on making students materialists and skeptics. Did yesterday make that easier, or harder? Think it through. We have seen what evil does.”
Some other helpful reflections were found in the response by Anne Hendershott, a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego. Her remarks – not long at all – are worth quoting in their entirety:
“While mental health experts are already medicalizing the behavior of what they are calling a ‘sick’ individual, and liberal politicians and pundits are blaming our social inequality, it is difficult to make moral judgments. We are told that this student just ‘snapped’ and could not have controlled his behavior. We are told that he was violent because of factors beyond his control – just like in previous school shootings when drugs, bullies, violent song-lyrics, and inequality made them do it. Biology was destiny – or the out of control capitalism that relegated some to the margins. The parade of psychological practitioners on the television news is already suggesting that there are uncontrollable hormonal factors or biochemical causes behind actions like this. Some sociologists will blame society, or capitalism.
”The continued attempts to psychologize and ‘understand’ such deviance – even in the face of evil such as that which occurred on this campus – show the distance some will go to avoid applying moral categories of judgment. Sociologists in the past cautioned us that the medicalization of deviance would eventually shroud conditions, events, and people and prevent them from being confronted as evil. The suggestion that the student who did this act was deranged but not evil demonstrates the lengths some will go to avoid moral judgments. We need to look at the virulent class envy that this student appeared to hold as a serious character flaw – one that may have led to his impaired thinking and his evil act. And, most importantly, we need to acknowledge that human beings are flawed creatures capable of monstrosity.”
The remarks by Michael Pakaluk, a professor of philosophy at Clark University, are the shortest of all, but are also worth including:
”St. Augustine remarked that, just as a robber is a little tyrant, so a tyrant is a robber on a big scale. What holds of robbery holds also of murder. Before we begin to agree with critics who might point to crimes such as the Virginia Tech massacre, or Columbine, as a sign of some unusual sickness in American society, we should consider that the scene of a madman with power, killing others remorselessly out of malice and envy, as he descends to his own self-destruction, was played out on a very large scale in Germany, Cambodia, Russia, and other nations in the last century. That sort of evil, which seems to afflict human nature generally, has so far been manifested only in private action in our country – thanks to our laws and political institutions, and the character of our citizenry. And for that we should be grateful.”
These few thoughts of course do not begin to cover the complexity and depth of this situation. And they only focus on several aspects – mainly moral, philosophical and theological – while many other facets could be considered. But they are a helpful start to what will be a voluminous discussion of this sorry episode.
Much of what will be written will be rubbish. Hopefully some will be of help. But at the moment, for the grieving families of the 32 victims – as well as the family of the gunman – the best we can offer them at this point is our prayers and our sympathy. When the nerves are less raw, and the emotions less overheated, perhaps this site will offer more analysis as well.