A Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman, Lt. Chris Olivarez, described the shooter as “just a totally evil person.”
That was it ? Was Salvador Ramos mean? Or was he an unhappy young man who stuttered, lisped, was bullied and teased by other students and came from a dysfunctional home with a drug-using mother? Why do people do these things? Because they are unhappy? Because they are crazy? Or can it be that they are, in truth. . . evil? Evil is a big word.
Writing in Time magazine about the massacre of 16 schoolchildren and a teacher in Dunblane, Scotland, 26 years ago, I called it an evil act; I said the shooter himself, a man named Hamilton, was bad. A doctor, a civilized man, wrote to me saying that I was stupid to use such a medieval word as evil. Clearly, the doctor said, the man who shot the children was mentally ill. I felt chastised.
On the other hand, why not use a medieval word like evil? Things have only gotten worse since Dunblane. I sometimes think that the 21st century, through a trick of time and physics that we don’t yet understand, has been caught in a backwash. We are taken back to something primitive, even medieval, as if the most impressive scientific and technological advances were accompanied by an equal and opposite regression.
Salvador means “savior”, quite a name for a child killer. But what does it matter if they say he was mean?
How about putting it this way: the shooter was confused, but his act was wrong? Is there a distinction between sinner and sin? It wouldn’t exculpate the killer but would offer his memory a gesture of understanding. Sunt lacrimae rerum, said Aenea. These are the tragedies of life.
Evil acts against innocent children cry out to heaven for vengeance, in the picturesque language of the catechism. On the other hand, if there is no afterlife – and if there is no heaven, and no God – then what if a shooter ends to his unfortunate existence with a dramatic and annihilating act of evil? If harm can be done without consequence to the shooter, other than a welcome and screaming exit from an intolerable life, then why should he hesitate? Without God – or without a highly evolved humanistic morality beyond the abilities of most teenagers – the word evil becomes meaningless and, therefore, 10 times more terrifying to the rest of us.
The first philosophical question that Ludwig Wittgenstein asked himself, at the age of about eight, was this: “Why should a person tell the truth if it is in his interest to lie?” A corollary question: Why shouldn’t one person kill another if there is no reason not to? Why shouldn’t he kill as many people as possible in the time available between the first shot he fires and the cop’s shot that will kill him and end his “ride”?
The mystery of evil: mysterium iniquitatis. During the Rape of Nanjing (1937-1938), two Japanese officers held a contest to see which of them, using a samurai sword, could decapitate the most Chinese victims in the shortest time. shorter. They were going to 100 in a minute. I think they came a bit short-80s maybe. One thinks of these things not out of morbidity, but out of disgusted wonder, out of the mind’s natural need to find a basis of comparison, a way to talk about subjects such as what happened at Uvalde.
The question of whether the individual can be “evil” is considered, but in a short time this speculation opens up a broader perspective: the question of whether something in society itself – in the cultural milieu – is Wrong. Why was this deranged boy allowed to buy these guns? What was it about the Imperial Japanese Army in 1937-38 that encouraged the rape of Nanjing (in which some 80,000 Chinese girls and women were raped and some 300,000 civilians murdered)?
Moral calculation is complicated by metaphysics: are they numbers? One hundred Chinese beheaded against 19 dead schoolchildren in Uvalde? Do not compare one evil act to another, warned Elie Wiesel. Evil is always unique.
The numbers, however, are a useful corrective when the rhetoric gets carried away. Each individual death is a powerful fact, and the facts add up. The numbers – the body count, the most basic statistic – inevitably become political. The death toll from gun violence in Chicago is not measured on the same moral scale as mass shootings like Uvalde’s. The act of Salvador Ramos, or that of the supermarket killer 10 days earlier in Buffalo, NY, is held up as proof of a sick, gun-crazed society. Deaths in Chicago, on the other hand, become events of sociology. No one describes these murders as bad. The murderers are half excused as being themselves victims of poverty or racial injustice.
Or it may be that the most Jesuitical theologian, considering both Chicago and Uvalde, thinks and thinks and settles for that verdict: evil, with an explanation.
Mr. Morrow is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book is “God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money”.
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