If Jared Loughner is not evil, then who is?

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding.  In the words of Job, “when I looked for light, then came darkness.”  Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.  –President Barak Obama

And if you read back my statement of defense, it wasn’t self defense. It was defending those who are innocent, talk show hosts, talk show host listeners, those who have nothing to do with a crazed, evil gunman who killed innocent people. –Sarah Palin

For once, Obama and Palin agree on something. But they are both wrong. As awful as this shooting is, as tragic the deaths, and in spite of what some are saying, it cannot be denied that Jared Loughner is a mentally disturbed, obviously delusional, and probably psychotic young man.  Perhaps this could be said of anyone guilty of such an act. So is there such a “thing” as evil? Well, apparently some very powerful  people think so.  In addition to Obama, both George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan were outspoken in their shared belief that evil exists, particularly in the guise of heinous tyrannies.  Were they correct, or were they falling back on centuries old superstition?

In 2009, Roger Simon, of Politico,  talked about how, though once a skeptic,  he now believes he has literally met evil,  in the person of Iranian President Ahmadinejad. In another article two days ago, he wonders whatever happened to a general belief in evil and why so many are willing to accept an ‘insanity defense’ for Jarred Loughner’s actions:

Which leaves me with just one question: Whatever happened to evil?

Why have we rushed to the judgment of insanity? Legally, very few defendants are found guilty of insanity.

We know that anybody who guns down innocent people or sticks dead bodies under his house or eats them, for pity’s sake, has got to be crazy.

And we believe that because 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. Not that long ago, compulsive drinking, compulsive gambling and even compulsive eating were looked upon as human weaknesses. Now, we treat them as medical problems.

Evil has been medicalized (sic) into insanity. But only up to a certain point. There seems to be a correlation between the number of people you kill and whether you are called insane or evil.

Loughner allegedly kills six and is insane.

Hitler kills more than 6 million, and he is evil. The same is true for Stalin and Mao. We don’t say they needed the intervention of community health clinics, we say they were the ultimate examples of evil on earth because they murdered tens of millions of people.

Is the difference just numbers, however? You kill a certain number of people, and you are nuts — but you cross the line and kill more, and you are evil? Is that how it really works?

Or, in our modern times, are we embarrassed by the term “evil”? To some, it seems too primitive or too religious, or both.

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.

Simon raises some interesting questions. But I think the ultimate conclusion he comes to is incorrect.  Perhaps there is is such a thing as evil. But there is a significant difference between the Tuscon killings and those committed by the regimes of  Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao and Saddam Hussein.  Infamously atrocious acts but,  at the risk of offending some,  I would like to add to this list the American enslavement of black Africans, the genocides of  Sullivan’s March, Wounded Knee, Rwanda and Dar-fur, the horrors of Andersonville, the Rape of Nan King, and the indiscriminate bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Maybe even the corporate dumping of toxic waste like what the Hooker chemical company did at Love Canal.  If the definition of evil requires that violent or harmful actions be premeditated and that the actors be perfectly sane, placing their own well being above the suffering of innocent people, then all of the above certainly qualify.

The difference between Jared Loughner and Adolf Hitler is not just about the numbers, although the real difference certainly would certainly seem to result in many more deaths than otherwise might take place.  The real difference here is that in one case we are talking about the tragic work of one lone madman as opposed to  institutionalized murder, which requires the wholesale complicity of a nation, a political party, a corporate entity –  a community.  The difference between the compulsive behavior of the delusional versus the calculated and coordinated machinations of those who certainly should, and do, know better. When we blame ‘evil’ for violence and murder we tend to deflect the focus away from the real causes, in which we might possibly even play a part. Which is a lot more scary than believing evil walks among us.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. – Edmund Burke


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  1. #1 by Vellum on January 21, 2011 - 11:16 am

    I’ve always thought that the difference between crazy and evil was that crazy people had no moral compass, no way to judge right from wrong, whereas evil people did things in full awareness that they were immoral acts, and simply didn’t care.

    • #2 by Christian Beyer on January 21, 2011 - 2:43 pm

      Sure. That makes sense. And that’s why the insanity defense is a good one, in so many cases. But it could be argued that sociopaths (which are what I think you are describing) could in some way be defective beyond their control. That they are hardwired to be something less than human.

      But we are so quick to label something as “evil” when, from the other end of the telescope, we might be seen as ‘evil’ ourselves. We talk of what Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot murdering millions of people, but of course they could not have done it without the help of their people, many of whom were just average “Joes”.

      But it’s not just the large scale despicable acts of our enemies that qualify as evil. There were the early American who built their country on the back of slaves. Or the families that built their lives on land stolen violently from others. Were they ‘evil’? I don’t accept the idea that morality has really evolved that much since then. Those people were fully aware that these were immoral acts but justified is as being just the “way of the world” – eat or be eaten. Somehow less than human.

      So perhaps ‘evil’ is just a mental construct that we use to describe the transgressions of our enemies. I don’t believe in “evil” itself. It’s a useful metaphor. But what I think we are really talking about is inhumanity. Animal versus human(e).

  2. #3 by philosopoet on January 22, 2011 - 11:10 am

    “I don’t believe in “evil” itself. It’s a useful metaphor. But what I think we are really talking about is inhumanity. Animal versus human(e).”

    Well Said…

    Big topic, and as such, one that requires much”Soul Searching.”

    Our individual urges propel most of us beyond the reasoning through of the question – Is this right or wrong…?

    …because most of what we do as individuals is survival based – will one action or another cause us to live or die today or tomorrow…

    Survival most often trumps morality…

    A better metaphor for Job (one that would have taught us how to deal with an evil coming from those we are suppose to love), would have Job stand up to God and say, Are your actions those I should teach my children, should I survive the folly of your battle with evil…

    • #4 by Christian Beyer on January 22, 2011 - 8:54 pm

      Is that actually in Job? Because it should be.

      Sent from my iPod

  3. #5 by logiopsychopath on January 22, 2011 - 8:59 pm

    See if you get this one–before you call him evil–just call him “The Chairman of the Board.”

    Think about it

  4. #7 by philosopoet on January 22, 2011 - 11:02 pm

    …you better than I know it’s not in Job…

    • #8 by Christian Beyer on January 23, 2011 - 1:29 am

      OK, you’ve called me out. But…it still should be in there. I understand what the author of Job was getting at – heck, how many sermons, how many books have been built around it? Shit happens. But does God have the right to screw with people like that? Just to make a point?

      I’m sure some poor schmuck is telling some other poor schmucks right now that some how, in some way, this tragedy in Tuscon is serving God’s purpose. That’s why we have ‘evil’ – it is part of God’s greater plan. Bollocks.

  5. #9 by logiopsychopath on January 23, 2011 - 2:21 am

    I’ll tell you the next time I see you in person.

  6. #10 by logiopsychopath on January 23, 2011 - 2:24 am

    I apologize for minimizing this tragedy with a kookie theory.

    On the other hand, I think you are trying to say not to judge this guy as being any more evil than anyone else, as awful as this act may be.

    It is a technique of rhetoric to demonize, like Bush calling Al Quada “Evil” as a pretext for a “war on terror.” This is what Kenneth Burke calls “devil terms” used to persuade.

    • #11 by Christian Beyer on January 24, 2011 - 12:36 pm

      Thanks. Good stuff. I looked up Burke’s “Definition of Man”. Very relative to today’s rhetoric coming from both political camps (though primarily from the Right).

      Have you read any Eric Hoffer and his take on the rise of political movements?

  7. #12 by philosopoet on January 24, 2011 - 1:27 pm

    Thanks logiopsychopath, I’ve not read this before… ” Burke’s “Definition of Man” seems interesting and worth a 2nd and 3rd read through…

  8. #13 by norma on February 7, 2011 - 11:52 pm

    Hi, just another thought What about the man in the tombs? Could we plead an insanity defense for him? Jesus drove out the demon that was inhabiting him Have we become too sophisticated to be aware of the real evil that walks among us? Have we gotten too soft to call a demon what it is? Do you believe that a person can be taken over by an evil that cannot be resisted. Although I believe that a person would have to have tendencies toward evil to allow an evil so great to rule them, body and soul. The Bible says that we wrestle against what we cannot see, The question of how many must someone kill to be called insane or evil is moot. Taking just 1 life is evil. That is God’s perogative. When, where , and how.

    • #14 by Christian Beyer on February 8, 2011 - 9:39 pm


      “Have we become too sophisticated to be aware of the real evil that walks among us? Have we gotten too soft to call a demon what it is?”

      Yes, we have. We have an understanding today of the mind and mental illness that we did not at that time, thank God, so that today, rather than labeling someone possessed or evil we might instead provide them with the treatment that could possibly give meaning and hope to their lives.

      “Do you believe that a person can be taken over by an evil that cannot be resisted?”

      No, I do not. All “evil” can be resisted, or where is the hope of the Gospel? But first we must recognize that evil for what it is, and often it is not what we think it is, it is much too close for comfort.

      “The question of how many must someone kill to be called insane or evil is moot. Taking just 1 life is evil.”

      For the lack of a better word, “evil” does fit the bill here. But using “evil” in the same vein, I would say that it is evil for a people to sit idly by while their leaders indiscriminately take lives in the national interest. Or that our communities single out entire groups of people to be shunned and persecuted. Or that we ignore the plight of impoverished foreign workers in American owned factories so that we might have cheaper prices at Costco and higher stock dividends on Wall Street while other Americans can find no rewarding work.

      We are all evil. Every one of us.

      Thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts.

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