Many people across the blogosphere in the last couple days have reported hearing others say that the shooter was evil, that he was in the service of the Devil, and that that's the explanation for what happened.
Sorry, but no. "Evil" is a cop-out.
"Evil" is just shorthand for "it's too complicated and upsetting to consider the possibility that there are no clear-cut, black-and-white, simple answers, so anything that might demand that consideration gets labeled 'evil' so we don't have to confront it or deal with it." It's intellectual laziness. Yes, what happened was horrifying. Yes, the shooter is to blame. But using that simplistic word "evil" to explain it is a cop-out. It denies nuance, it denies the possibility of multiple causes, and it lets everyone off the hook so we don't have to confront the reality of the American culture of violence (physical, symbolic, economic and otherwise).
Calling this event and the shooter "evil" means we don't have to consider the internal psychological pressures that might have driven him to do what he did.
Calling this event and the shooter "evil" means we don't have to consider the external social pressures that might have driven him to do what he did.
Calling this event and the shooter "evil" lets us all off the hook when it comes to confronting a culture that glorifies violence, worships guns, ignores mental health as a public health issue, and bows down to the almighty dollar's demands before we consider anything else. It lets us off the hook when it comes to demanding reasons for our neglect of the poor and the mentally ill, the sick and the homeless, the unemployed and the underclass.
And we don't deserve to be let off the hook.
Criminologists have often explored the issue of what causes people to commit crime. In the 1960s, Dr. Travis Hirschi turned that question on its head and asked "why don't more people commit crime?" After all, it's rational to commit crime if you can get away with it, so why don't more people do it? He came up with the idea of social bonds being the main reason why people don't commit crime. Those who are involved in their communities, attached to other people through personal connections, committed to the culture's expectations and holding strong beliefs in its laws tend to be low-risk for crime. An example of someone with strong social bonds in all these areas would be the man who volunteers his time for coaching Little League or at a soup kitchen (involvement); has strong and important relationships with his partner, his children, his colleagues and his friends (attachment); has committed to social expectations through his marriage, his job, his education, and (sometimes) his church (commitment); and believes that the laws are good, right, and proper and that he is governed by them (belief).
Conversely, those who have little to no involvement, aren't strongly connected to others, don't really give a flip about what the culture expects, and feel that the culture's laws are bogus are much more likely to commit crime. An example of this kind of person would be someone who has not volunteered his time to his community, who has few if any relationships with anyone (broken homes are common), who has no job, no partner, and no children; and who rejects the law because he thinks it shouldn't apply to him.
But do we talk about any of this? Of course not, because it would mean we couldn't just dismiss what happened as a force of "evil." It means we'd have to consider not just the shooter but the social environment. And just as I wrote after the Aurora shootings, we're not willing to do that, because that would mean we'd have to confront the messy, shades-of-grey, compromising, negotiating, and complicated issues that are the root causes, plural, of this disaster. We'd have to confront the American culture of violence, and we're just not willing to do that.
A two-pronged approach to fix this problem has been suggested over the last few weeks: gun control and mental health care reform. It's a good start, but it's not enough.
Will gun control alone stop things like this? No, but it can reduce them by putting guns out of the reach of people who shouldn't be using them.
Will mental health care reform stop things like this? No, but it can reduce them by making sure that people's mental health problems get addressed before they pick up a gun and shoot it at six-year-olds.
The problem is, those two prongs aren't enough to fix this problem. The problem is endemic. It's cultural. Controlling guns and reforming mental health are band-aids on a bleeding wound. What we need - what we must work on finding ways to encourage - are people who are strongly bonded to society. But that means we need to address all those things that get in the way - economic inequality, racism, unemployment, broken homes, poverty, socially disorganized and physically disorganized living environments, the lack of a social safety net. And that's just for starters. Are we willing to do that? I haven't seen evidence of it.
When we look at Hirschi's model, we can see that what we need to look for, in order to identify likely risks to a community, are the people with low social bonds - people who don't have a lot of involvement in their community, people who are not deeply connected to others, people who blow off social expectations, people who reject laws that they don't like. And sadly, we've created a culture where people like this exist not only in the socially disorganized areas of our nation's cities (the slums) but even in the middle class. We are more alienated, less connected, less involved, and more cynical than any group of Americans in history. And until we address the things that are making us more alienated, less connected, less involved and more cynical, we haven't a hope of stopping this from happening again.
But labeling people who are not well bonded to the community as "evil" solves nothing, except the need to feel morally superior and self-righteous to the shooter. Labeling the complicated stuff as "evil" also gives most people an automatic pass to label themselves as morally superior to evil, since they know they're not evil.
Well, anyone who feels morally superior to the shooter (for any reason other than that they didn't shoot twenty kids the other day), anyone who feels that they are morally superior to him because he was "evil" (or "damaged" or "sick"), needs a reality check.
It was and is horrifying, yes. It was and is awful, yes. It was shocking, and devastating, and incomprehensible, yes.
But calling it "evil" is too easy. It's a cop-out, and it's a disservice to the victims to use it as an explanation.
It's the culture, stupid. What are we going to do about it?