11/7/2017—President Trump called the Las Vegas shooting on October 1 “an act of pure evil.” He also called Sunday's shooting in a Texas Church “an act of evil.”
The President is not alone. Lots of people refer to shootings like these as “evil.” What is the meaning of calling these kinds of acts evil, as opposed to deranged or the act of a mentally disturbed person?
The first instance I remember of calling terrorism “pure evil” was its invocation by President George W. Bush in reference to the 9/11 terror acts. In that instance, the motif quickly became political. President Bush was willing to call these acts pure evil but some Democrats or liberals were not.
I remember thinking at the time that terrorists thinking they were defending Islam from attack and willing to die in that defense should not be called purely evil or cowardly. They were doing an evil thing, but they were not motivated by a pure desire for the death of others. These terrorists were like a lot of other terrorists—willing to kill the innocent to achieve a greater good. A terrible thing, but not pure evil.
That is not what is going on in cases of domestic American terrorism. (Should it be called Christian terrorism as opposed to Islamic terrorism? Are these shooters Christians?) Here, calling these mass shootings evil seems to be a way coming to grips with them without having to think about either public policies that might prevent them or the actual motivations of the shooters, which might help identify such people.
I’m not sure this is conscious. Among politicians I am sure it is a studied rhetorical strategy. Among regular people, it may be quite unconscious.
A talk show radio host was on NPR after the Las Vegas shootings and he said his listeners did not want to talk about policy, but about human nature. This is like the saying of Jesus about the poor—the evil ones you will always have with you.
But there are simple policies most everyone agrees with, some of which are already in place, that might prevent some of these kinds of shootings. For example, the Air Force now admits that its failure to enter the court martial conviction of the Texas shooter into the federal database allowed him to purchase the semi-automatic rifle he used in the shooting. In the case of Las Vegas, the kit to convert a semi-automatic weapon to a fully automatic weapon could be effectively prohibited, leaving fully automatic weapons to be experienced on licensed gun ranges. In theory, I believe the NRA supports both policies.
Similarly, we should be desperately studying these shooters to find out more about them. Granted, the absence of news about them—the public learns relatively little about them—does prevent their glamorization and maybe prevents copy cats. (Who remembers the Connecticut shooter?) But we as a nation should be trying to find out what makes someone end his own life by shooting a large number of people he does not know. Was the Pulse shooting in Orlando really about hatred for gay people, for example? Why didn’t the shooter in Texas target just the people he was angry at? And what lay behind attacking a music concert or five years before that, a movie theater in Colorado?
Calling all these different things “evil” prevents us from learning anything. You might as well say, with Flip Wilson, the devil made me do it.
Finally we get to see the gun fantasy of armed bystanders confronting the shooter, which happened in Texas, and how worthless it is even when it happens. The 26 people were already dead. Prevention is the key. You can't prevent evil, but maybe sometimes you can prevent this.