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Ruminations of a Native Son


Greater Washington. DC., United States
February 06
Compulsive writer (mostly memoirs and sociopolitical rants), musicologist, hermeticst, fiscal conservative, radical centrist, agrarian socialist; Charter member, Factualist Party; born and raised in DC, healthcare professional, retired businessman, civic and political activist on two coasts, civil rights movement veteran. An empiricist's worst nightmare, I believe in everything but I don't believe everything, including many things I believe in. Turned down by US Army in 1966 for medical reasons, thrown out of Col. Hasan's Black Man's Army in 1967 for being "too militant." Scion of a family only Tennessee Williams could have dreamed up. There's more. There's always more.


JANUARY 4, 2013 8:15PM

The Nature of Evil and a Means to its End

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Over the past two decades I've given a lot of thought to guns, mass killings, random killings, suicide, gun ownership, violence, and all things bloody. It is, in part, a product of my avocation-turned-vocation, from the street medicine of EMS systems to the indoor efforts to save and/or improve lives in the field of allied health/nursing. It happens to coincide roughly with the Columbine, Colorado, shootings, but it also has its roots farther back, all the way to my human beginnings, since I grew up in a culture of guns and violence.

I also grew up afloat in a religious gumbo which, I still believe, was and remains a fortuitous happenstance. How this bears upon the subject should be implicit in the title of this post.

Ernest Becker, Erich Fromm and others have questioned the sanity of our society. Neither one lived to see it devolve to the point where is now lies, poised at a fork between two paths, one leading to a far more mature and humane (and sane) society and one the could easily degenerate into total chaos, that chaos punctuated by gunfire.

In today's Washington Post, Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology and former president of the American Psychological Association, argued that evil actually underlies most mass killings, though it does not necessarily address armed robberies, crimes of passion or by any stretch the complex issue of suicide. And yet, in his final analysis, Seligman draws the dots together in the same way that I have in my own mind over the years: Guns are the primary cause of violent death, and mass murder is the most visible and disturbing evidence of the connection between guns and evil, which might seem, to many even opposed to guns generally, to be a specious argument. But let's look at this more closely. (The entire article by Seligman may be found here ).

Seligman is squarely in the corner of Becker (who received a Pulitzer for his final work, "The Denial of Death," posthumously; not a great irony since though he never mentioned it during the narrative of the book, Becker was dying as he wrote it). Becker also wrote "Escape From Evil," in which he argued, alongside Fromm, that evil behavior was symptomatic of a seeking to escape the spectre of one's own death. It could not be distilled more purely in the mass killings we have seen over the past 20 years. Seligman is also in league with Fromm, who wrote in his "Psychology and Religion" that “There is nothing inhuman, evil, or irrational which does not give some comfort, provided it is shared by a group.” We can see this evident in the rhetoric of hatred especially as it comes from the far right end of our political spectrum, and as acted out by those at the far end of that spectrum who are, by whatever process, profoundly evil.

Many otherwise liberal thinkers will dismiss the notion of evil as a valid concept, because they believe, in their ignorance of religious belief (which, ironically, they believe makes them more clear and clear-headed on the subject of sociopathy) that the concept of evil can only be traceable to a devil, which, of course, they believe in no more than they do in an anthropomorphic God. This latter is also a serious flaw their otherwise usually clean reasoning, because one cannot speak with authority on a subject about which one knows or understands little. (Many atheists and secular thinkers assume the only available God concept is some sort of super person, which they then reject out of hand). This is precisely why I consider my having grown up in a diverse religious milieu as a blessing (if you will forgive my use of that word in a secular way). Not all believers believe in a grey beard loon in the sky.

Seligman argues that while people may be labeled "crazy," "insane," "psychotic," etc., this does not automatically account for acts of profound horror such as the Newtown massacre. He states, as a professional psychologist, that the crazy (a handy blanket term for the mentally ill, compromised, delayed, etc., as used in common parlance) rarely commit these sorts of acts, while those who are evil almost always do. Seligman acknowledges that the two conditions can overlap, can exist in the same person, but that they are comorbidities, that evil and insanity or even some of the quite sane-but-compromising conditions such as Aspberger's syndrome, do not account for acts of such nightmarish and unthinkable violence.

I have long taken this position, but my formal psychology credentials are fairly slim (though my experience in it is fairly deep): Trained in critical incident stress management, dealing with violent people in the work place, and some seminars and even personal conversations with doctors of psychology are all I bring to the table, along with Seligman, Becker, Fromm, Rollo May, William Heard and a few others. Yet I am intelligent enough to learn from them as well as I can from a woman who can recognize the value of a device that removes lint from a dryer duct (and her intelligence is hardly limited to that area, but is merely indicative of her constant inquisitiveness and interest in what makes life easier and better; see "Lizard Brain" here ). So much for my credentials. I know "crazy" when I see it, I know the difference between a psychological illness (ie: borderline personality) and a physical one (ie: PTSD)

Seligman's qualification on evil is simple and elegant: "We know evil when we see it: 'mean,' 'violent,' 'full of hate,' 'selfish,' 'grandiose,' 'without a conscience' and 'bullying' all signal evil. Whatever mental illness he may have had, Adam Lanza died and, most likely, lived at the extreme end of evil." While I would take issue with some of those hallmarks (especially bullying, which often has a personal and very external trail that can be used to explain if not excuse the behavior), it is, for the most part, something that speaks for itself. Seligman argues that Lanza's having been saddled with autism or Aspberger's syndrome (we will likely never know which, or even if), does not explain his viscrerally hateful, monstrous act.

Like Seligman, I hope to see the practice of psychological care improved, and like Seligman I doubt, as much as I wish for that to happen, that it will likely decrease much the acts of mass violence we are now being told are a result of the failure of the psychological community. While it is largely a field in the throes of failure right now, and while it desperately needs to be restored to its former status as a caring (and deeply probing) professional specialty, the emphasis put upon it in the wake of Newtown seems somewhat misplaced. Seligman states, quite accurately, that "Crazy people and evil people can commit mass murder and they always do it with guns." True, and while it accounts for only a small number of the annual gun deaths in the US, which leads the developed world in this area, there are other elements overlooked conveniently by most participants in the black-and-white "conversation" we are currently having over gun violence and gun control. "You simply do not shoot 6-year-olds repeatedly unless you are exploding with rage and regard the violent suffering of young children and their parents with indifference or worse." No. You don't.

Erich Fromm argued that a society could be sick, insane, and perhaps in that respect we can link evil and insanity, but few would be willing to acknowledge their personal contribution to a sick society any more than most white people will acknowledge an intrinsic, if unintentional, participation in a racist society. It's just too much to ask to redefine those terms.

Given the ground rules, then, we must differentiate between "evil" and simply "crazy," and recognize that temporary insanity ("he snapped," "crime of passion," disastrously impulsive suicidal acts) would also all be more difficult to accomplish without ready access to guns, and that mass murder would be far more difficult to carry out without fairly ready access to assault weapons, semi or fully-automatic killing machines that one can purchase on line and one can not reasonably use for hunting, since the meat will be inedible or the trophy destroyed. No, those weapons are intended for one purpose only: The killing of massive numbers of people at once, as in modern warfare.

Meanwhile the evil continues, enabled by those who argue over how many crazy people can dance on the head of a pin.

The reality is simple: Our only short-term means to reducing the frequency of mass killings and impulse killings and yes, even criminal killings (and do we believe all thugs and gangsters are simply deranged?) is to limit access to guns, starting with the banning of assault weapons for civilians, despite the persistent and ridiculous belief that somehow a form of tyranny is about to explode in our midst via our benign-if-clumsy form of government, and that if such an (insane?) notion should become reality, that somehow these weapons, highly effective against soft targets such as six-year-old children, could be effective against the massive military might the political Right has managed to build into their own worst nightmare should it ever be turned upon the people it is supposed to be defending. Now that is an example of insanity.

No, it is not mental illness that causes mass murder, at least not alone, and not in the absence of actual evil (sociopathy, no devil required), and regulation of all firearms, along with the absolute banning of assault weapons, is the only way we can reduce the horrifyingly large annual gun death count here in the "City on a Hill," and make far more difficult the mass slaughter of innocents.

Guns, after all, are no more necessary to life than pitching horseshoes; they are, however, designed, since their inception, as a means to the end of death.


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Fine argument AJ. Cutting through the tripe served up by the NRA.
I was raised in a gun culture where safety and courtesy were the unwritten law regarding firearms. That law does not hold in many of our cities and towns in this country. Chicago tried a freeze on the registration of handguns in the late 70's. The murder rate and the general crime rate dropped during the years the freeze was in effect. Enter the paranoid gun lobbyists...the rest everyone knows.

Now, in Illinois we are faced with the question of adopting the "Conceal and Carry Law." The possibility of Illinois accepting this law is nothing less than a horror to me. Hastening more death and maiming...all for the unquestioned power on an individual to be RIGHT.
Thank you, Gary. The NRA's echo chamber or endless circular reasoning (or yakbabble) was what I was mainly aiming at, though the argument over evil vs. dysfunction that yields horrific results (but we shouldn't use the word evil because its meaning is relative, whereas... wait, "good" can also be relative) was also a target. Oops.

I was an NRA member from age 12 -17. That's when I quit, because I saw the changes starting to take place that long ago (dear god, that was 50 years ago). But I remember the whole safety and courtesy thing, and when it started to get shaky.

The gun lobby has owned far too much influence on the Hill, and only if we keep on pushing right now can we hope to break that unholy grip. The Illinois conceal and carry law, if it is enacted, will no doubt be a catastrophe, and you have hit the nail on the head: It's not even about money; it's about being "right."
Very well thought out and written. The culture of violence has become ingrained in society. The mentality of the NRA is dead wrong in my view.

Thanks for sharing this very thoughtful post. I am not sure exactly what evil is--the absence of goodness...or maybe not tapping into the goodness (or God or love or potential for the common good), which exists all around us? Sometimes I do believe people get cut off from goodness through no fault of their own, from the way they have been imprisoned or mistreated, or from illness. I know the times I behaved the worst in my life it was when I was beyond exhausted, at the end of my resources, had no one to turn to, etc. Sometimes I think evil happens when peoples' resources and cultural fabric are torn too much to support healthy seems that happens during war, when more and more evil happens with the breakdown of culture. People's worst impulses aren't held in check, and their most basic needs aren't being met. In the Newton case, maybe the shooter had a very limited repertoire of behavior, gaming and shooting. I imagine he must have felt so cut off from possibilities in life, that maybe he just felt anger & despair, self-hatred, like he couldn't participate in the world in any way. The evil that comes from desperation.

I agree with you, we are all participants in making our society healthier/sicker based on what ideas and practices and products we support and agree too.

The evil that scares me even more is the evil that happens when people plan to harm others together, and it grows unchecked, like what happened during WW II and even our invasion of Iraq, when we didn't stop it, even though the rest of the world was in the streets demonstrating against our invasion. That was evil, too. That contagious evil scares me the most, it just catches like wildfire and is hard to stop. It can be stopped, though, if people work together and aren't so afraid, and use some common sense.
Thank you, Lyle. The culture of violence is very deeply ingrained here. It is perhaps unique to us among developed countries. The NRA is now a functionary of the Republican Party (or maybe it is by now the other way around). We have a situation on our hands, and we need to have a serious, very public conversation about it. I'm afraid, though, we will find one more excuse to become distracted. We are an ADD nation, it seems.
clay ball, thank you for your very thoughtful and thought-provoking comments, especially the ones on war and collective, organized violence, which is, indeed, the most frightening and primal sort of evil, right up there with lynching. In either case it is a study of mob or herd mentality. While people seem to have made a case, to their own satisfaction, for why this happens (and in the case of war, even justify it), that in itself may be a huge evil. To be able to justify mass killing in which huge numbers participate and everyone agrees is "necessary" to the integrity of a nation or region or tribe is bizarre and truly inexplicable, yet there are entire books devoted not only to explaining how to conduct these exercises, but cultures worldwide have embraced the falacy of Mother, Blood and Soil. We may well be a defective species -- and yet there are so many of us who do not buy into war, killing, violence, or even entertain notions of evil as fantasy, that I wonder. I just wonder...
"guns" may be no more necessary to your life than pitching horseshoes, but they are the basis of your privilege of not bearing arms. When cities decide they need armoured personnel carriers to respond to "the possibility of a drug sale" you live in a police state. You may give no thought to who is "licensed " to have and store THOSE arms- but remember that the BATFE was /is one of the largest suppliers of illegal arms to the Mexican cartels-

You remember Mexico? NO CIVILIAN OWNERSHIP OF GUNS- And school massacres are unheard of, because they are lost in the back pages behind all the other massacres.

I really don't care what you do with the cities. Chicago does so well with its gun ban, as does DC.

Awareness and response is the ONLY thing that will keep you safe. We know that in the country. All the attempt at forcing hysterical unilateral federal laws through will do is further discredit the legitimacy of the federal government.
this is silly. spree killing is an insignificant, genuinely trivial, segment of the national death toll. it holds the attention of the middle class only because spree killings penetrate the cocoon of wilful ignorance about poverty, violent crime and the suppression of the american underclass.

there is plenty of evil in american society, but it is the result of greed and selfishness, not caused by the fetish of gun 'power.' getting automatic weapons out of general circulation will presumably reduce deaths by gun homicide, but the greed and selfishness will ensure the criminal culture is not much affected, and the remaining guns will be sufficient to keep america way out in front of the gun death league table.