Understanding Evil

The shooting in Tucson over the weekend that has left six people dead, including a small child, and several others fighting for their lives is the kind of thing that can make you lose faith in humanity. Almost as discouraging has been the rush in some quarters to assign blame to various political groups for inciting the killer to violence — before the killer’s identity was even known — an exercise in opportunism that never gets any less contemptible, no matter how often it happens.

And it happens all the time. I remember posting about this rush to judgment back in September, when a gunman took hostages in the Discovery Channel building: I laughed at a post Dave Weigel had titled “This Crazy Man With A Gun Proves That Political Point I Was Making!” because it so aptly summed up our seemingly incessant need to extrapolate political judgments from everything. As the same narrative plays out once again — this time with a more tragic ending — it doesn’t seem so funny.

Of course, I understand the impulse: We naturally want to know why these horrible things happen. We need to find an explanation, a storyline we can latch onto that accounts for the evil that could drive a man like Jared Loughner to attack innocent people — because then we have something concrete to reject and arm ourselves against in the future. Otherwise, we have to face the possibility that evil is everywhere, at times striking for no discernible reason, with nothing we can do to prevent it. As Ross Douthat explains in his Sunday column:

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[C]hances are that Loughner’s motives will prove as irreducibly complex as those of most of his predecessors in assassination. Violence in American politics tends to bubble up from a world that’s far stranger than any Glenn Beck monologue — a murky landscape where worldviews get cobbled together from a host of baroque conspiracy theories, and where the line between ideological extremism and mental illness gets blurry fast.

. . . These are figures better analyzed by novelists than pundits: as Walter Kirn put it Saturday, they’re “self-anointed knights templar of the collective shadow realm, not secular political actors in extremis.”

We may never understand Loughner, or his reasons. (Of course, maybe we will — though I imagine it’ll take more than 48 hours of online speculation to discover the truth.) But there is one bright spot in all the hypothesizing over this story: Our need to understand it means that we do not accept it, no matter what our political background. Douthat puts it in perspective:

We should remember, too, that there are places where mainstream political movements really are responsible for violence against their rivals. (Last week’s assassination of a Pakistani politician who dared to defend a Christian is a stark reminder of what that sort of world can look like.) Not so in America: From the Republican leadership to the Tea Party grass roots, all of Gabrielle Giffords’s political opponents were united in horror at the weekend’s events. There is no faction in American politics that actually wants its opponents dead.

That may seem like a small blessing, amid so much tragedy and loss. But it is a blessing worth remembering nonetheless.


  • Margaret Cabaniss

    Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

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