Radical Evil
Looking for answers in Virginia.


John O’Sullivan

We are gradually learning more about what happened in the Virginia Tech massacre on Monday — apparently the worst such massacre in American history — but even when we have been told all the practical and human details, we will still be ignorant of its deeper causes.

From Columbine to the Washington snipers we have supped our fill of horrors in recent years. But even when the murderers candidly describe their motives and their modus operandi, we remain mystified as to how and why they can calmly set about disposing of fellow human beings as if they were so many insects.

It is curious how often such killers are described as calm or dispassionate. That seems to have been true of yesterday’s murderer as he calmly shot down people whom he knew either scarcely or not at all. “Without malice” was how one witness characterized his mood as he pulled the trigger. Nothing personal, apparently.

Of course, in other shooting sprees, there has been something personal. When John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan, he was hoping to impress a Hollywood actress he admired. But he had nothing personal against Reagan — and yesterday’s murderer apparently had nothing personal against his victims. He simply wanted them to die. Even when the motive is personal, it seems to be impersonal towards the victims.

Was the Virginia murderer inspired by an almost pure hatred of life and, maybe happiness — so that the contentment of other people was a kind of rebuke to his own private distress? That seems possible: A letter he left behind rages against privileged kids (even though he, a student at a fine college, was privileged by most standards in this world).

If so, however, such a blind hatred of happiness would surely strike witnesses as angry and demented — whereas he was, as we have seen, apparently calm and dispassionate. Motive is anyway an utterly inadequate explanation of such a crime.

When the Washington snipers were finally identified and caught, the most likely motive driving them seemed to be racial hatred. But many people harbor racial rage in their heart and never do harm to a soul. There have been millions of anti-Semites throughout history but only one Hitler. And there have been many millions inspired by class hatred of privilege but only a few Stalins and Lenins.

Something more than hatred — either personal or collective — has to possess someone before they can bring themselves to inflict death and destruction, whether on random strangers or on population masses. In an age obsessed with celebrity, it is reasonable to speculate that the Herostratus complex might be at work. Herostratus was the Greek who burned down the Temple of Diana at Ephesus (one of the most beautiful things in Antiquity) so that his name might live forever.

Might not the Virginian murderer be seeking that kind of fame through iniquity?  It is hard to believe that someone could murder for such a modest reward which, anyway, he would not be around to enjoy. But I suppose that even such a trivial motive cannot be definitely excluded.

Even so it doesn’t explain enough. Herostratus was only burning down a building; he was not extinguishing the life of someone in front of him. Surely that must require something more fundamental than desire for public attention, a perverse moral courage for one thing, and perhaps also what has been called “radical evil.” This is the desire to do something wicked precisely because it is wicked. It is an almost satanic moral choice — “Evil, be thou my Good.”

Religious thinkers distinguish between those sins that are the result of human desire and weakness and those that are a deliberate attempt to defy and insult God. Did we see radical evil of that kind in Virginia?

Secular and therapeutic critics will be reluctant to believe so. They tend to argue that a deliberate embrace of evil is itself be a symptom of mental illness. We cannot, of course, exclude the possibility that the murderer was mentally ill to the extent of not being responsible for his actions. He was, after all, receiving treatment for depression. But the embrace of radical evil has been seen in people as different as Hitler and the Chicago murderers, Leopold and Loeb, who display no other symptoms of mental illness. Such people have killed for the experience, or to lift themselves above the common ruck of decent moral people, or to achieve some wicked but nonsensical aim as to rid the world of whole classes of human beings. Evil though such motives may be, they are not themselves evidence of mental irresponsibility.

Lessons will undoubtedly be drawn from this so that we may avert such tragedies in future. Some will be technical — greater controls on guns. Some will be moral — attempts to make our culture less brutal and obsessed with violence. Some will be medical — seeking to discover and treat in advance the personality traits that are associated with these crimes.

Some of these are sensible ideas, such as raising the level of our debased culture and encouraging people to place greater internal restraints on our drives and appetites. Some are palliatives to make us feel better, such as gun control (which has not prevented similar crimes in Europe). Some are interesting but also sinister, such as the therapeutic notion of preventing and punishing crimes before they happen.

None, however, seems up to the task of defeating radical evil when it appears. And, alas, it seems to be appearing more and more often. Let us not despair, however. To set against outbreaks of moral evil we have examples of heroic virtue. The Rumanian Jewish professor, a survivor of the Holocaust, who placed his body and himself in front of the gunman in order to enable his students to escape, gave his life for others. Let his name and example be what we remember from this terrible week.

  John O’Sullivan is the editor-at-large of National Review. This first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission.


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