Why Do We Deny Evil?

In 2011, Jared Lee Loughner went on a shooting rampage, severely injuring congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords

And killing five others. This tragedy was compounded by the immediate blame-shifting onto every conceivable rationale for Loughner’s act. The explanations ranged from the sociological (education, video games, parenting) to the political (Sarah Palin’s campaign and Barack Obama’s ideology) to the psychological (dude was just crazy).

I still remember one short, simple retort written by Roger Simon of Politico. Why do we explain potentially evil things as simple acts of insanity? “Because,” Simon writes, “we do not want to believe, as our ancestors believed, in evil. Evil is even more frightening than madness. Madness can be treated. All we need is early intervention and clinics and more resources devoted to the problem…We hope. We live in an age in which virtually all our problems have been medicalized.”

A million different assessments of that Tucson shooting were offered, but none of them reached this level of profundity. Simon wonders out loud whether this is a sheer matter of mathematics. If you kill six people, society will try to dismiss it with some sort of explanation. When you kill six million like Hitler or Stalin—the evidence is overwhelming and you are certifiably evil.

I think there is something to Simon’s mathematical explanation. When I was deployed, the death of a couple of soldiers was rarely covered by the American media. Perhaps the subject was too morbid to be introduced day after day to American homes. When a helicopter that carried five or more soldiers went down, it constituted a tragedy and people paid attention. There is a point where people are forced to acknowledge the gravity of the evil that has occurred.

Perhaps we see the same mindset at work in the evolution of the War on Terror. When terrorists struck U.S. embassies in Africa or the U.S.S. Cole, they were minor blips on the national radar. Then planes struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and the scale and proximity of the attacks forced us to open our eyes.

These mathematical formulas still miss the most important questions: What constitutes evil and why are we so willing to deny its existence? Simon asks, “In our modern times, are we embarrassed by the term ‘evil’? To some, it seems too primitive or too religious or both.” I think he is heading in the right direction, and then he lands his chilling conclusion: “And we would much rather believe that all sick people can be cured by medical intervention. Because that is a lot less scary than believing that evil walks among us.”

Does that hit close to home? We have spent fortunes trying to mitigate the evidences of evil and effects of suffering in our lives. Each night, we can go home, lock the door, turn on an incredibly shallow sitcom, put back a few drinks, and go to bed. Stories of evil and suffering reach our ear, but in sanitizing them with sociological, psychological, political, or even mathematical language, we can rationalize them and keep them at bay.

Yet, I would go a step further than Simon. What if the consequences of coming to terms with evil were even more dire than realizing that “evil walks among us?” What if it means that evil walks within us? What if, in retreating into our modern day monasteries of suburban life, we are taking the Devil with us?

When we rationalize evil as some form of sickness, we can deny its existence. When it becomes clear as day—in say, genocide—then we can at least say it is a rare mutation found in special species of man somewhere far, far away. What if evil can be found in the mundane as well as the magnificent?

Perhaps one of these days, you will turn off the TV and cast your eye upon your own heart and discover that the death and decay found in the news is also found within. Beneath the sociological, psychological, political, and mathematical layers lies the moral problem—a problem that turn our finger-wagging upon ourselves.

It takes courage to admit that “we have met the enemy and he is us.” Yet, this sad diagnosis is not without its remedy. We cannot be our own physicians. We cannot heal ourselves. Almost two thousand years ago, a man walked this earth, healed the physically sick, and explained “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Therein lies the cure, if we are but willing to admit the ailment.