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Monday, December 17, 2012


"Do you believe in evil?"

It was a serious question from an earnest-looking, middle-aged man who had a strangely haunted look about him.

"Yes," I said, "Absolutely."

"Really?" he asked, "Why do you say that?"

"It's simple logic," I said. "If there is any balance in the world - and I believe there is - then, it follows that, if there is good in the world, there is also evil."

He considered this for a moment before asking the next question.

"The Governor of Connecticut said that they had been visited by evil. Do you agree?"

"No," I said, just as confidently. "That was not the result of evil. That was the result of psychosis. Mental illness. We used to think mental illnesses - and things like epilepsy - were demon-possession. A manifestation of evil. We also used to think the world was flat. We know better now."

"So, the murder of 20 children and eight adults was not evil?" he asked.

"It was not the result of evil. Not any more than the hundreds of people who died during Hurricane Sandy or the thousands of people who died in Japan after the tsunami or any other tragedy of unfathomable numbers of deaths of innocent people," I said.

"We used to think that earthquakes and hurricanes and tornadoes were 'Acts of God', or retribution for some transgression or 'sins of the fathers'. We know better know. But the person who did this was not 'evil'. I feel that very strongly," I said.

"But," someone else said, "Mike Huckabee says that the reason we are having all these shootings in school is because we've stopped allowing prayer in school."

"Mike Huckabee," I said, with absolute certainty, "is an idiot."

We laughed and then I continued, "The God I worship and adore is not capricious or malicious. God doesn't get his/her nose out of shape because we're not praying in school. Until Mike Huckabee can prove he has a direct line to God, I don't believe he can speak for God."

I didn't even get into the report that the Westboro Baptist Church plans to picket the President's visit with the grieving parents in Newtown. Members of Fred Phelps' church say that America is being punished for its acceptance of gays and lesbians. In recent days, Phelps family members have sent tweets about the Connecticut shooting that have said "God sent the shooter."

Maybe Mike Huckabee should talk to Fred Phelps so they can get their story straight about exactly what God is up to in all of this.  Is it LGBT people or is it 'progressive left-wing teachers who don't say prayers in school?

Inquiring minds want to know, but we may have to wait for Pat Robertson to weigh in to get the most accurate read of God's mind. My guess is that he'll say it's feminists and all who support abortion. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". It's right there in the bible, after all.

"So," my friend continued, "Is what happened on 9/11 the result of evil?"

"Yes, absolutely," I said.

He looked surprised and asked, "Why do you say that?".

"Because it was a carefully planned and executed, intentional theological and political and violent act to take down the symbol of capitalism - The World Trade Center - without regard - and in fact, with great purpose - for the innocent lives that were lost in the process."

An unmistakably pained look came across his face. "I was three doors down from the World Trade Center on 9/11," he said. "Of the 300 people I worked with, more than 90 died. I think what happened on that day was evil. I don't think what happened in Connecticut on Friday was the result of evil."

Suddenly, I understood his haunted look. We briefly talked about his experiences - and mine - of 9/11. Neither of us knew much about what happened in Newtown, CT - we still don't know all the details and may never fully understand what happened that day or why - but we knew, after having experience 9/11, that 12/14 was very different.

I'm sure it feels the same to those who lost children and siblings and relatives and friends in the Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday, but I think we name as 'evil' that which we feel is outside ourselves and not even a remote possibility of human behavior.

What I think may well be a manifestation of 'evil' is our inability to accept any responsibility when tragedies like this happen. We also deny our complicity in creating events like this.

We have failed to ban assault weapons - not hunting rifles but automatic or semi-automatic weapons used in combat. We have accepted the false narrative that the NRA is all-powerful and unbeatable. Somehow, the now almost routine death of innocent people in malls and schools and theaters has become the price we pay for constitutionally guaranteed freedom to 'bear arms".

Our mental health system has failed miserably.  We have not made psychological health a priority for research and/or treatment.  The diagnosis of schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder has become a waste-basket term for "we really don't know what to do" except provide medications that cloud the mind and dull the senses and make life for some of those who are affected not worth living - not on medication, anyway.

We do not even bother to understand the difference between a disorder or disability or mental illness.  Adam Lanza, the man who was the shooter, is reported to have Asperger's Syndrome - part of the spectrum of Autism. Many people who have never heard about Asperger's Syndrome will now erroneously connect it with pathological violence and murder.

Here is an essay written by a person with Asperger Syndrome. It reads, in part:
"Asperger's does not determine the content of your character - it simply channels whoever you are into unconventional and sometimes highly enlightening pathways. If it is indeed the case that the gunman had this disability, then he was a psychotic who happened to have Asperger's, not someone who was psychotic because of that condition. I hope very much that this is not how people are first introduce to the disability, because there couldn't be a starker departure from its actual nature." 
Even so, there will be people who will not - can not, indeed, can't be bothered to - make the distinctions between a disorder / disability and psychosis / mental illness.  They just need a handy wastebasket into which to throw their confusion and guilt - a handy hook on which to hang conflicting emotions.

Anything to not accept responsibility or systemic complicity when tragedies happen. 

We all want to be innocent. We are not.

We all want our hands clean of horrid tragedies. They are not.

So, we rationalize ("Thousands more children die outside of schools than inside." "More children die of hunger than at the end of a gun." "Seventy children were shot to death in Norway which has some of the toughest gun control in the world").

We blame others.  Or, the personification of parts of ourselves we'd rather not admit we have. Evil. Satan. Beelzebub. Lucifer. Mammon. The Son of Perdition. The Devil - who made me do it.

People who are mentally ill are not evil. They are just as capable of doing evil as people who are not mentally ill, but their mental illness does not make them evil.

Here is an essay written by the mother of a mentally ill child. She tells the story of one incident with her 13 year old son and then writes:
I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.
It's difficult to talk about guns. It shouldn't be, but it is.

It's difficult to talk about mental illness. It shouldn't be, but it is.

And, it's time to talk about both of these issues.

My friend asked, "Why, then, does evil exist?"

"Because I believe there is good in the world. Because I believe there is balance in the world - between good and evil. Because I believe the world sometimes get out of balance and bad things happen to good people and good people do bad things. Because it is the terrible, awful price to pay for the gift of free will."

I believe that with all my heart.

Which is also why I don't think Adam Lanza was evil. I believe he was ill. I think the social stigma and isolation he experienced because of his disorder (Asperger Syndrome) must have been impossible and overwhelming for him.

What happened to those innocent children and adults was a a terrible, awful tragedy.  Adam Lanza is not evil. I do not believe he did - or, could - make a choice for evil.

The world got out of balance because good people sometimes don't know how to deal with people who are different and disordered.  Good people want to be innocent.  And, evil had the opportunity to outweigh good.

As Edmund Burke once said,
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (sic) to do nothing."
Fred Rogers of "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" has some wonderful advice for parents of children in the midst of disasters like what happened in Newtown, Connecticut.
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."
In the days and weeks ahead, let us look for the helpers. They are the ones who are choosing good over evil.

Indeed, in the days and weeks ahead, be one of the helpers who work for sanity in legislation about weaponry and help for those who are mentally disabled, disordered or psychologically ill.

Choose good. Choose life. For yourself and others.

In so doing, I believe we will help the world find our balance again.


Barbara A.T. Wilson said...

In the same sense 9/11 was evil, there is an evil component to what happpened at Sandy Hook. The guns to which Adam Lanza had ready access were guns intended to kill people. It is said his mother was a "gun enthusiast." To me that is like saying one is an "arson enthusiast." I read somewhere that either handgun shot 5 bullets a second at a velocity of 1200 feet per second. What about that capability should one be enthusiastic about, I wonder? It seems like an arsonists fascination with fire and the destruction it can wreck. No one should have access to guns like that but the military.

Unknown said...

Look for the helpers - thank you for being one of the helpers in these times of trial.
There is no earthly reason for the average citizen to need a semi automatic assault weapon - they aren't using them for hunting. And there is no earthly reason they need a high capacity magazine that holds 30-50 bullets. I believe it is time to stand up to the NRA and reinstate the ban on assault weapons.

Sextant said...

Interesting discussion on good and evil. I agree Adam Lanza was ill not evil. I am not so sure I can say the same thing for our society. Yes we like to think of our selves as basically good, but does a good society do things like make assault rifles and high capacity magazines readily available? Is that evil or just insane?

The trouble is there will always be an Adam Lanza among us, some one who slips over the edge and into the depths of madness. Better mental health care will help, but it won't prevent every single case.

The problem in American society is always no school prayer, gays and lesbians, too high of a tax rate on the rich, too many handouts. Odd God punishes us for gay marriage with these events...but has it ever occurred to these people that God may be punishing us for having too many guns, no ban on assault weapons, selling high capacity magazines?

Actually I don't think God punishes us for these things, I think through natural law, God punishes us for lacking common sense.

Gee when you flood the streets with assault rifles and ignore mental illness, the two can mix into tragedy!

We have 300 million guns, 100,000 shootings per year, and 30,000 fatalities per year...all because of school prayer and gay marriage. Amazing!

Do these people that say this stuff really believe themselves?

Bill said...

The government and yes, even the Supreme Court, has not kept pace with the technological advances in weapons. When the 2nd Amendment was written, the choice of arms for both military and civilian use was the muzzle loading smooth bore musket. It fired (sometimes) a round lead ball weighing about an ounce and was accurate out to about 40 or 50 yards. The people who framed the constitution weren’t worried about one man walking into a pub and killing everybody. His first shot would be his last shot.
Here we are some 240 plus years later and that quaint scenario has changed. The firing rate of a modern assault rifle is approx. 900 rounds per minute. Now it is possible for one man to walk into a building and kill everybody. The government has never sought to update or even clarify the language of the 2nd amendment. Meanwhile, the right to free speech has been curtailed. You are not allowed to walk into a movie theater and yell “Fire”. So, there is precedent for modifying these privileges.
I’d also like to point out, that the language in the 2nd Amendment states “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.[8]” Here we can see that it clearly says “well regulated”. Where is the “well regulated” in the civilian market. In 2008 the Supreme Court said that the right to keep and bear arms is not tied to the well regulated militia wordage, even though we find those words in the same sentence in the 2nd Amendment. I think the Supreme Court committed a grievous error in judgment because they did not take into consideration the technological advances in killing weaponry.
Even when I was in the Army, if you were stationed state-side, all the weapons were kept in an armory under lock and key. You had to sign them out to clean them, but you weren’t given a hundred rounds of ammunition to polish at the same time. It was regulated.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Amen, Barbara. Amen.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Susan - I think we're finally finding our voices and stirring up our courage to face up to the NRA. It's past time.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sextant. I like what Chris Rock said - let have people have all the guns they want. As many as they think they need. Let's charge $5,000 per bullet. He says, and I agree, that there would be no "innocent bystanders".

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the National Guard the equivalent of a 'well-armed militia'? I really don't understand the need for combat level, semi-automatic assault weapons in possession of every day citizenry.

JCF said...

"But," someone else said, "Mike Huckabee says that the reason we are having all these shootings in school is because we've stopped allowing prayer in school."

"Mike Huckabee," I said, with absolute certainty, "is an idiot."

So Say We All!!!

[Yeah, six year-old Noah Posner, Orthodox Jew, was killed because he didn't (by law) say "the prayer that Jesus taught us." Anathema!!!!]

Bill said...

The Congress and the Senate are afraid of the gun lobby. Until the Constitution is amended to fine tune the 2nd Amendment, the Supreme Court can't do anything but interpret the law as it stands.

Matthew said...

It may not have been evil, but what of the mother? What she did certainly seems irresponsible to me. You know your child is mentallhy ill, and indeed, according to press reports, you quit your job to stay home full time to supervise him and care for him, and yet you have loaded firemarms in your house. Why? A typical 20 year old does not need constant supervision. I am sorry but at this moment I can summon compassion for the shooter but I am really finding it hard to summon any compassion or empathy for the mother.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - I think the folks at the Jesus Seminar have pretty much proven that, probably - maybe - the only words Jesus actually said of The Lord's Prayer were "Our Father". Everything after that is probably bits and pieces from other teachings - and, things his disciples made up.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bill - I'll have to take your word for it, not being even close to a constitutional scholar.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - I hate to tell you, buddy, but I think the need to "blame" someone/something is just avoidance of taking responsibility for this tragedy. It's just my theory, but I figure if we take responsibility for the way mentally ill people are treated (or, worse, ignored) and stand up to the NRA and begin enacting gun control measures, that will begin to bring about more change than blaming a dead woman, killed by her own son.

Matthew said...

Elizabeth, you are probably right. I am still in blame and anger mode and should let go of that. I did want to ask you about something that happened last Sunday at church, however. Late Friday word went out from the Bishop that ALL parishes in the diocese must read the names and ages of all the "victims" aloud at church on Sunday. All clergy and lay leaders got the phone calls, emails, etc. to do this. At my parish, when all the names were read aloud, no one with the last name of Lanza was read. I thought maybe it was a fluke so I called various people in other parishes. Same deal. Now, I don't know what the bishop intended and perhaps he just printed some list off the Internet and forwarded it without looking at it that closely and many of the various "lists" on the Internet did not inlude the Lanza's. Or perhaps the bishop did not send a list and people in lots of parishes just printed off various Internet web sites. But, it sent a message, subtlely or not about how counts to be mentioned at a memorial. No Lanza. Then I read in the Wash. Post that apparently this is quite widespread and so I wondered your thoughts about the absence of the two Lanzas. Same thing is happening in Newtown accordinig to this article. Worth reflecting on.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - It's a subtle but harsh message, message, isn't it? Not entirely Christian, either. I'm sorry. I've been praying for Adam Lanza and his mother along with the victims of this country (and this church's) inability to stand up to the real horrors of gun control and our mental health system that really brought about this event.

Lord, have mercy.

Bateau Master said...

Wow - talk about transference. Adam Lanza joins Kehoe, Harris, Klebold, Johnson, Golden, and Huberty in choosing his path. The thing that ties them all together is their victims presented no possibility of resistance. That defines evil.

Matthew said...

Thanks. Until I read this article I did not know that Obama only mentioned the "26" during his visit to Newtown. I wonder if anyone in the press corps will have the balls to ask him about it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bateau - Wow! You obviously know so little about mental illness.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'm thinking it won't be asked, not because no one has the balls (or ovaries) but because it's past the news cycle.

Unknown said...

We need to dialogue about guns, violence, incivility, inequality, and I don't know what else.

The news is only interested in sound bites (I wrote sound bights, but that's just a good knot). :)