The Tucson Tragedy and God’s Gift of Moral Language
On Saturday a young man opened fire outside a Safeway grocery store in Tucson, Arizona, killing six people, a 9-year old girl among them, and wounding 14 others, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. This is a tragedy. Twenty persons made in the image of God with a right to life and liberty have been killed or wounded by the attack. May God grant healing to those whose lives can still be saved and comfort to all those mourning their dead.
Most of you know all this already. And most of you know all about the political jabs going back and forth whether this attack was made more likely because of a “climate of hate” (to use Paul Krugman’s phrase describing the rhetoric of the right) or whether those who posit such theories (like Krugman on the left) are themselves the indecent ones. Personally I think Ross Douthat’s op-ed piece in the New York Times gets it just about right: “Chances are that [Jared] Loughner’s motives will prove as irreducibly complex as those of most of his predecessors in assassination.” And later, “There is no faction in American politics that actually wants its opponents dead.” Thankfully this is true.
But I noticed in Douthat’s article what I notice in every other write-up on the shooting: a reflexive reluctance to speak of the killer’s inner workings–his motivations, his make-up, his soul if you will–with moral categories. Douthat does better than most in speaking of Loughner’s “darkness,” but even here there is the subtle use of passive imagery. “Politicians and media loudmouths,” Douthat writes, “shouldn’t be held responsible for the darkness that always waits to swallow up the unstable and the lost.” True enough, but who should be held responsible? My vote is for Loughner who, by all accounts, appears to be not only the accused killer but also the real killer. Certainly darkness is appropriate imagery, but I’d argue it’s more appropriate to say he committed a dark deed rather than to imply darkness swallowed up an unstable young man.
A Predictable Pattern
I remember the same thing happening with the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. Dr. Richard Roberts of Oral Roberts University said the act was Satanic in origin, though he was unsure if it was demonic oppression or possession. Rabbi Peter Rubenstein suggested that Seung-Cho Hui lost contact with the good inclination within him. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo explained that “normal” individuals can be trapped in emotional prisons that create aberrant and evil behavior. Robert Schuller concluded, “it’s pure psychotic crack-up.” Thankfully Richard Lints from Gordon-Conwell provided the last quote in the same article. “The lesson,” he said, “is that when we don’t take our own evil seriously, we are much more liable to perpetrate acts of evil.” At least someone said the “e” word.
I have no doubt Loughner is messed up, crazy, off his rocker, and out to lunch. It seems that he’s needed help for a long time. But why jump to conclude that this is a “Tragedy of Mental Illness”? To be sure, mental illness is real but it does not honor those who endure it to rush a diagnosis and start naming disorders every time an anti-social, nihilistic, solipsistic young man with guns and grudges sins in the worst possible ways. Where have all the active verbs gone?
Words Have Meaning
Unfortunately, pundits shy away from explicitly personal and moral categories in precisely the moments we need them most (9-11 may be the one exception). Whenever a public tragedy like this occurs everyone on the right and the left struggles to find some cause, and that cause is almost always outside the self—video games, strange novels, mistreatment by friends, a culture of hate, the second amendment, heated political rhetoric. And when an internal cause is suggested it almost always points away from personal responsibility to some element of us that doesn’t really belonging to us—like a mental disorder or our own personal demons.
We instinctively resort to passive speech, unable to bear the thought (let alone utter the words) that a wicked person has perpetrated a wicked crime. The human heart is desperately sinful and capable of despicable sins. Of course, no one commends the crime, but few are willing to condemn the criminal either. In such a world we are no longer moral beings with the propensity for great acts of righteousness and great acts of evil. We are instead, at least when we are bad, the mere product of our circumstances, our society, our upbringing, our biochemistry, or our hurts. The triumph of the therapeutic is nearly complete.
Losing Our Religion, And Evil Too
We are so awash in the language of disorders and dysfunction that we don’t know how to talk about good and evil. There was a book published in 1995 called The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost Their Sense of Evil by Andrew Delbanco. The opening paragraphs are worth reading carefully.
A gulf has opened up in our culture between the visibility of evil and the intellectual resources available for coping with it. Never before have images of horror been so widely disseminated and so appalling–from organized death camps to children starving in famines that might have been averted. Rarely does a week go by without newspaper and television accounts of teenagers performing contract killings for a few dollars, women murdered on the street for their purses or their furs, young men shot in the head for the keys to their jeep–and these are only the domestic bulletins…
The repertoire of evil has never been richer. Yet never have our responses been so weak. We have no language for connecting our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes in the outer world…
In our disenchanted world, one respected historian has recently remarked (and here he is perfectly representative) that mass murderers like Hitler and Stalin require us “judiciously [to] distinguish mental disorders that incapacitate from streaks of disorder that should not diminish responsibility.” This distinction would be meaningless to the scores of millions who died at their hands. What does it mean to say that the inventor of the concentration camps, or of the Gulag, was subject to a “disorder?” What does it mean to call these monsters mentally disordered, and to engage in scholastic debate over whether their brand of madness vitiates their responsibility? Why can we no longer call them evil? (3-4).
Delbanco finishes the book by saying “My driving motive in writing [this book] has been the conviction that if evil, with all the insidious complexity which Augustine attributed to it, escapes the reach of our imagination, it will have established dominion over us all” (234). Chilling and true.
The world, and to a large extent the church, has lost the ability to speak in moral categories. We have preferences instead of character. We have values instead of virtue. We have no God of holiness, and we have no Satan. We have break-downs, crack-ups, psychoses, maladjustments, and inner turmoil. But we do not have repugnant evil as the Bible has it. And this loss makes the world a more dangerous place. For the words may disappear, but the reality does not.