First, the facts in all their monstrous simplicity. A young man murdered 32 people in Virginia Tech University, because he was angry about their wealth. Between murders, he mailed a self-dramatizing video to NBC News, in which he carefully read from a prepared script. Confronted by police, the young murderer put a bullet in his own skull, and died.
Most of us in America live soft and happy lives. Evil happens elsewhere: in Iraq or Sudan, exotic places flashing past our TV screens. When evil comes to us, we are unprepared, and we fail to understand what we are seeing. The talking heads in front of the cameras are no help. They deny. They diagnose. They politicize. They look at every possibility, except the one that matters.
For Europe, the murders in Blacksburg were a joy and a feast. They proved the bestiality of Americans — never mind that the killer was born in South Korea — and, more importantly, the superiority of gun control, European-style. Fine for the Europeans. Let them enjoy the murders. But many American politicians and opinion-mongers seem to feel the same way. The 32 corpses were still warm, and these people were playing politics.
Is gun control a good thing? I offer no opinion, pro or con. It’s indecent.
Now, here is how the WaPo described the murderer’s video: “The communications sought to explain his actions but served mostly to display his anger and illness.” In fact, the video performance never sought to persuade or explain. The killer used it to blame others for his own monstrous actions, and play-act and posture through a little drama in which he, and he alone, mattered. “I die like Jesus Christ,” he said, “to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless people.”
Anger and illness. Presumably the authors of the WaPo article meant mental illness: confronted by terrible deeds, journalism turns to the kind of psychology learned mostly by watching Hollywood movies. This removes the action from the human plane, where morality rules, to that of cause and effect, where human beings resemble billiard balls bouncing helplessly one against the other.
Thus the horror is “explained.” Nobody was responsible, certainly not the perpetrator.
The killer was an angry, threatening, hostile person. “I’ve taught troubled youngsters,” says Nikki Giovanni, the poet, who held a class which he attended. “I’ve taught crazy people. It was the meanness that bothered me. It was a really mean streak.”
Yet, at the time, others agreed with the WaPo diagnosis, and sent the young man to a mental hospital. They could see he was troubled, and presumed he was insane. But he was released, because hostility and meanness aren’t identical to insanity. The killer’s disorder was moral, not psychological. He was mean. He was obsessed with his private grievances, and indifferent to the lives and cares of others. He was an evil man.
If only because we find them deeply disturbing, every moral monster is in some sense disturbed. Mass murderers by definition aren’t normal: but there are many modes of abnormality, many paths to disturbed behavior. Some are medical. The sniper who climbed the clock tower of the University of Texas some 40 years ago and shot down 17 strangers was found to have a brain tumor. He had an illness. He was in the grip of causation, not morality. But the abnormality of the young man with the guns at Virginia Tech was one of character, of humanity, of moral sense.
Last week, an addled deejay used gangsta slang in referring to a black female basketball team. The tidal wave of moral posturing that gushed out of the media would have drowned New York City faster than Al Gore’s melted glaciers. Everyone was outraged. Nobody could stop talking about how outraged they were — it went on and on, network executives, cable news agitators, Jesse Jackson, vociferously angry, wishing to punish the culprit, to impose justice on an unjust world.
But for a man who kills 32 innocent persons, no anger, no moral stances, just idle chatter about illness and gun control.
I draw no lessons from the terrible event. Evil walks in the world. We know this, in our hearts. Morality is the constant preparation for the moment when we encounter it. Most of us know that, too, and work on it as best we can.