Stop Calling the Shooter ‘Evil’ December 16, 2012

Stop Calling the Shooter ‘Evil’

When so heinous an act is carried out that it falls outside the realm of normal human comprehension — like an elementary school massacre — people search desperately for “answers.” This impulse is certainly understandable. The shooter’s motives remain inscrutable, and it is very difficult to imagine what would possess anyone to systematically execute kindergartners.

“Evil visited this community today,” proclaimed Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy in the aftermath. It was a line tailor-made for the newsreels — the state’s chief executive condemning Adam Lanza in the most greivous possible terms.

Adam Lanza

But Malloy’s rhetoric was unhelpful. Such condemnations are easily made; they satiate a yearning for harsh moral judgment in times of crisis. But we have no good reason to suppose that “Evil” — whatever that means, exactly — “visited” Sandy Hook on Friday. Rather, it looks more like a severely disturbed individual perpetrated violent acts.

Lanza’s older brother told police that he suffered from mental illness of some kind, and though this has not yet been confirmed (to my knowledge), it seems like a far more plausible explanation for his behavior than vagaries involving “Evil” — a word which evokes the crudely dichotomistic moral paradigms (i.e. Good vs. Evil) common to monotheistic religion.

These paradigms can inhibit the complex task of honestly assessing mentally ill individuals’ moral agency. If a psychotic person lacks any conception of moral rightness and wrongness, then he cannot be fairly said to act with “Evil” intent. In the same way that we would not declare a toddler “Evil” or an Alzheimers’ patient “Evil,” reflexively imputing “Evil” to the mentally ill is also wrongheaded.

Again, we don’t yet know the full nature of Adam Lanza’s ailment. But recent history is instructive. Observers were similarly quick to denounce spree-killers James Holmes, Jared Loughner, and Seung-Hui Cho as “Evil,” but we later learned that they were all hobbled by extreme mental illness — paranoid delusions, hallucinations, etc. (Both Holmes and Lanza, for what it’s worth, appear to have been exceptionally intelligent.)

Yesterday, Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Convention theologized that “Original Sin” is to blame for Lanza’s acts, and Mike Huckabee has cited the removal of God from public schools as a contributing factor. It is to be expected that these hard-line Evangelical Christians would proffer such explanations — they genuinely believe that Satan actively works to bring about “Evil” in the material world.

But people like Malloy ought to know better, and resist explaining away distressing events with simplistic platitudes. Mental illness remains heavily stigmatized, and the Christian tendency to conflate illness with sin only perpetuates the stigma. Declarations of “Evil” might give temporary solace to traumatized families, but in the long-term, they distract from society’s collective ability to identify and treat diseased people who have violent designs.

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