Understanding Evil

The shooting in Tucson over the weekend that has left six people dead, including a small child, and several others fighting for their lives is the kind of thing that can make you lose faith in humanity. Almost as discouraging has been the rush in some quarters to assign blame to various political groups for inciting the killer to violence — before the killer’s identity was even known — an exercise in opportunism that never gets any less contemptible, no matter how often it happens.

And it happens all the time. I remember posting about this rush to judgment back in September, when a gunman took hostages in the Discovery Channel building: I laughed at a post Dave Weigel had titled “This Crazy Man With A Gun Proves That Political Point I Was Making!” because it so aptly summed up our seemingly incessant need to extrapolate political judgments from everything. As the same narrative plays out once again — this time with a more tragic ending — it doesn’t seem so funny.

Of course, I understand the impulse: We naturally want to know why these horrible things happen. We need to find an explanation, a storyline we can latch onto that accounts for the evil that could drive a man like Jared Loughner to attack innocent people — because then we have something concrete to reject and arm ourselves against in the future. Otherwise, we have to face the possibility that evil is everywhere, at times striking for no discernible reason, with nothing we can do to prevent it. As Ross Douthat explains in his Sunday column:

[C]hances are that Loughner’s motives will prove as irreducibly complex as those of most of his predecessors in assassination. Violence in American politics tends to bubble up from a world that’s far stranger than any Glenn Beck monologue — a murky landscape where worldviews get cobbled together from a host of baroque conspiracy theories, and where the line between ideological extremism and mental illness gets blurry fast.


. . . These are figures better analyzed by novelists than pundits: as Walter Kirn put it Saturday, they’re “self-anointed knights templar of the collective shadow realm, not secular political actors in extremis.”

We may never understand Loughner, or his reasons. (Of course, maybe we will — though I imagine it’ll take more than 48 hours of online speculation to discover the truth.) But there is one bright spot in all the hypothesizing over this story: Our need to understand it means that we do not accept it, no matter what our political background. Douthat puts it in perspective:

We should remember, too, that there are places where mainstream political movements really are responsible for violence against their rivals. (Last week’s assassination of a Pakistani politician who dared to defend a Christian is a stark reminder of what that sort of world can look like.) Not so in America: From the Republican leadership to the Tea Party grass roots, all of Gabrielle Giffords’s political opponents were united in horror at the weekend’s events. There is no faction in American politics that actually wants its opponents dead.

That may seem like a small blessing, amid so much tragedy and loss. But it is a blessing worth remembering nonetheless.

Margaret Cabaniss


Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)