Politics & Policy

Comprehending the Incomprehensible

Evil is what this was, whatever else can be said about it.

Earlier today, National Review Online e-mailed a group of writers and scholars asking for their thoughts on what Monday’s awful crime at Virginia Tech means, culturally. Here are their responses.

Fr. Thomas Berg

The details of what happened at Virginia Tech are still sketchy. As I write, more continue to surface. Yet they do little to bring clarity to this blur of horror.

Lucinda Roy co-directs the creative writing program at Virginia Tech. Her op-ed in the New York Times today was poignant. “None of us is safe,” she wrote, “as long as there are angry young men who yearn to blast a hole in the world.”

At present, we know little about the young man who killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus yesterday, and then himself. Was he mentally deranged or was his massacre cold and calculated? Will he turn out to be yet another angry young man who wanted “to blast a hole in the world”?

We’ve had eight years to come to understand how our society produces angry young men like the Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. We’ve diagnosed them as the tragic by-products of practical nihilism — that mix of materialism, sensuality, and meaninglessness that drives young people to the brink. We know that tragically — if our diagnosis has been correct — this will not be the last time that a twenty-something nihilist tries to blow a hole in the world, a scream of existential defiance in the face of nothingness.

The tragedy at Virginia Tech, we should hope, will provoke a profound process of national soul-searching. And rightly so. According to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Crime Victimization Survey, while in 2005 the rate of violent crimes decreased nationally to its lowest level, homicides and suicides at schools actually increased between 2000 and 2005.

Of the many dimensions of on-campus violence that require our sustained reflection, there is one that goes less noticed, but which perhaps deserves our most urgent attention: we are getting used to this.

“This is like a college Columbine,” noted a Virginia Tech student on MSNBC. He, like most of us, has been forced to develop a special mental category for processing the carnage: “school shooting,” “Columbine incident,” “campus massacre.” Do we find ourselves getting better at simply registering these things, checking out the news coverage for a while, and then moving on to life as usual? By evening yesterday, there were 1.8 million hits on CNN.com to listen to an “I-Report” cell-phone recording of the shots being fired on campus. For how many listeners was this macabre, real-life violence just an object of morbid curiosity and passing interest?

The danger here is that we become numbed to the violence. Young nihilists who randomly kill fellow students manifest the most extreme ambivalence to violence. And that should make us realize that we need to move beyond being spectators to the sensationalism. We need to be willing to feel the pain that will move us to seek lasting solutions to avoid future massacres.

Fr. Thomas Berg is executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person.

Matthew J. Franck

Just the other day I was describing, to a friend who had not seen it, a pivotal scene in Peter Weir’s 1985 film Witness. A little Amish boy who witnessed a brutal murder has been caught by his family handling the .38 revolver belonging to the wounded Philadelphia policeman who has brought the boy home to Lancaster County. His old grandfather chastises him, pointing out that the “gun of the hand” has only one real use, to kill people, and killing is always wrong. But what about killing bad men? asks the boy. Can you see into men’s souls and tell the good ones from the bad? his grandfather replies. I see what they do, says the boy.

There is wisdom on both sides of this exchange, both the ancient and the boy grasping part of the truth (though, I confess, I think the boy somewhat wiser). What makes their conversation possible is their shared belief that there is such a thing as evil. Yesterday, at Virginia Tech, evil struck, and the first requirement for us (as I heard Bill Bennett say this morning on the radio) is to call it by its right name.

The news trickled out, then came in a rush. Fifteen miles away from Tech, at Radford University, where my wife and I teach, I left my office to walk to my noon class shaking my head at the thought that one person had been killed and several wounded, in a case that sounded a lot like the William Morva incident last August. An hour later, my class over, I heard the death toll was in the twenties. It kept rising. Numb shock at first to hear such numbers, and then we began to wonder about friends and colleagues who work and study at Tech. Terse, quick e-mails to them: “Are you okay?” No need to say why you’re asking. Then waiting. A reply — thank God! Then the odd conscience-stricken thought that you have been spared only the personalization of grief, a hurt still closer to the heart, for you know that others will not hear all good news about their own. And so we see what evil does — first to its immediate victims, then to those who love them, then to those who can only place themselves vividly in imagination in either of those groups. Unless we have poor imaginations, that last group is all of us.

Professional explainers will soon be setting to work on this case, analyzing what happened (or what they speculate might have happened) to the perpetrator of the horror to prompt him to it. “Evil” is not likely to be in their vocabulary. Pathology of this sort or that will be diagnosed; maybe even a brain-chemistry explanation will be advanced. I mean no disrespect to my friends in psychology when I say that all such accounts, however true they might indeed prove to be, can never be more than partial. Human beings are responsible moral agents with free will, and in the end a willing actor had to pull that trigger. Do we really have a better explanation than our ancestors who believed a man could be possessed by evil — even by Evil Incarnate?

C.S. Lewis’s devil Screwtape tells his young apprentice Wormwood: “Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. . . . [W]hen they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics.”

Modern university education seems bent much of the time on making students materialists and skeptics. Did yesterday make that easier, or harder? Think it through. We have seen what evil does.

— Matthew J. Franck is professor and chairman of political science at Radford University

Anne Hendershott

While mental health experts are already medicalizing the behavior of what they are calling a “sick” individual, and liberal politicians and pundits are blaming our social inequality, it is difficult to make moral judgments. We are told that this student just “snapped” and could not have controlled his behavior. We are told that he was violent because of factors beyond his control — just like in previous school shootings when drugs, bullies, violent song-lyrics, and inequality made them do it. Biology was destiny — or the out of control capitalism that relegated some to the margins. The parade of psychological practitioners on the television news is already suggesting that there are uncontrollable hormonal factors or biochemical causes behind actions like this. Some sociologists will blame society, or capitalism.

The continued attempts to psychologize and “understand” such deviance — even in the face of evil such as that which occurred on this campus — show the distance some will go to avoid applying moral categories of judgment. Sociologists in the past cautioned us that the medicalization of deviance would eventually shroud conditions, events, and people and prevent them from being confronted as evil. The suggestion that the student who did this act was deranged but not evil demonstrates the lengths some will go to avoid moral judgments. We need to look at the virulent class envy that this student appeared to hold as a serious character flaw — one that may have led to his impaired thinking and his evil act. And, most importantly, we need to acknowledge that human beings are flawed creatures capable of monstrosity.

– Anne Hendershott is a professor of Sociology at the University of San Diego.

Michael Pakaluk

St. Augustine remarked that, just as a robber is a little tyrant, so a tyrant is a robber on a big scale. What holds of robbery holds also of murder. Before we begin to agree with critics who might point to crimes such as the Virginia Tech massacre, or Columbine, as a sign of some unusual sickness in American society, we should consider that the scene of a madman with power, killing others remorselessly out of malice and envy, as he descends to his own self-destruction, was played out on a very large scale in Germany, Cambodia, Russia, and other nations in the last century. That sort of evil, which seems to afflict human nature generally, has so far been manifested only in private action in our country — thanks to our laws and political institutions, and the character of our citizenry. And for that we should be grateful.

– Michael Pakaluk is a professor of philosophy at Clark University.

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