The problem of Sandy Hook is the problem Dostoyevsky conjured within The Brothers Karamazov, the problem that St. Augustine struggled with nearly two millennia before that: It is the problem of evil. The question that one has seen again and again in the anguished commentary is a question we cannot answer. “Why? Why did this 20-year-old young man murder his mother and then proceed to a school and snuff out the lives of another 20-odd women and children?” As I write, the “search for a motive,” which the police are said to have inklings of but have yet to reveal, is the topic most bruited by the commentariat. But no revelation the authorities vouchsafe us will have anything of substance to reveal.
The actions of young Adam Lanza betray that unfathomable opacity, the heart of darkness. Coleridge, writing of Iago, diagnosed his evil as an example of “motiveless malignancy.” So it is here. The psychologist, the social worker, likewise the “gun control” zealots, have nothing but nostrums for us in such cases. With the lives of a score of children suddenly snuffed out, likewise the several adults who were brutally murdered, it is pointless to pester the Almighty with “Why?” This really was — terrible phrase — senseless murder, though we find it all but impossible to rest in that senselessness. It is difficult, maybe impossible, to spare much sentiment for Adam Lanza when many of the corpses he produced have yet to be interred. But what a tangled, desperate horror his heart must have been. We are in the presence, here, of a hard, dark, numinous mystery that we can recoil from but never explain.
— Roger Kimball is publisher of Encounter Books.
A healthy response to the Newtown tragedy is to ask the hard questions and acknowledge, in humility, that the whole truth is not easy to come by. What is the role of mental illness in such killings? Most likely it is a factor; but we must remember only a small percentage of mentally ill persons are disposed to violence; they are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. What is the role of easily available guns? Clearly, Adam Lanzer would not have been able to kill 20 children and six adults if his only weapon was a knife. What is the role of a culture where each minute, three developing human beings are legally killed in their mother’s womb? Mother Teresa said that abortion is “war on children” and the greatest destroyer of peace.
What is the possible role of demonic spirits? An evangelical Christian pastor was asked about this on a national talk show this week and spoke of “the existence of dark forces,” yet shrank from speaking explicitly about demonic possession. What is the role of a culture in which more than 40 percent of children go to sleep in homes where their father does not live? We know father absence is now the leading predictor of nearly every childhood and adolescent pathology. “Abandonment by the people who brought you into the world,” says my daughter-in-law, herself a victim of divorce, “creates an existential darkness.” How does family disintegration interact with mental illness? And where does religion — faith in a loving God — enter the picture? Certainly, one can believe in God and do deranged things; one can believe in God, and plot to blow up innocents. But one can’t believe in the Prince of Peace and be comfortable in a world where so much killing happens, day in and day out. Ultimately, in a fallen world, we will never be free of the evil within us and around us. In the face of a Sandy Hook, we can only pray harder and work more to create what John Paul II called “the civilization of truth and love.”
— Thomas Lickona is director of the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility) at the State University of New York at Cortland.