Las Vegas and the Nature of Evil
By Daniel Sherman
In 1966 Charles Whitman, a highly intelligent man and decorated Marine and Eagle Scout, climbed the University of Texas Tower and opened fire randomly, killing 13 and wounding 32. He knew something was wrong when he wrote prior:
“I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.”
As per his request in a suicide note, an autopsy was performed and doctors discovered a glioblastoma the size of a nickel that was compressing his amygdala, a part of the brain that regulates emotions such as fear and aggression.
In the absence of any other explanation (some sort of violent political or religious ideology), and in the presence of information about the tumor, I think it would be a tough case indeed to argue that Charles Witman was an evil man.
Definitions of evil vary as widely as the kaleidoscope of religious and philosophical traditions around the world, but for our purposes I propose a few basic elements required for an action or person to be truly evil.
First of all, evil is cunning, intelligent, charismatic, and plotting. The fictional character of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost was the most beautiful of all the angels: powerful, persuasive, he gets all the best lines. Otherwise he wouldn’t be worth fearing. Evil is capable: plenty of anti-semitic cranks were on tap in the 1930’s and Hitler’s ideas were no different than any of them, but his rhetorical and propagandistic ability vaulted him to the ranks of truly evil and not just bigoted.
Second, evil understands exactly what it is doing, more clearly than anyone else. It is purposeful in the extreme. Evil plays the long game, shape-shifting to accomodate any opportunity. Evil nods to charity, trumpets goodness everywhere it goes, wraps itself in flags and symbols and whichever vestment will get it further down a sinister path.
Third, evil is entirely self-interested, it does not ultimately care about ideology or principles, it is about engorging the evil-doer’s arrogance and desire for mastery over others to its own end.
By this measure ISIS qualifies in spades. The North Korean regime is thoroughly, innately evil in its treatment of its own citizens. Rickey Ray Rector, a condemned man so mentally disabled that he saved the pecan pie from his last meal “for later”, was not evil. Bill Clinton, a man of prodigious talents and abilities, put him to death for political advantage, an act I’d submit is fairly described as “evil”.
Today we come to Stephan Paddock, the shooter in Las Vegas about whom we know practically nothing, except that after calm and careful consideration our president has decided committed “an act of pure evil”.
There are some acts that are so heinous that the very fact of having committed them seem to lean towards a presumption of insanity. They may not meet a legal definition of insanity, which is a high bar indeed, but in practical, everyday, scientifically-informed terms, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that a single man wakes up one day and freely and willfully chooses to enact a massacre and kill himself for no apparent reason. This is, on its very face, behavior so deviant that it cannot enter into the norm of “choice”. Whether it was a brain tumor or a psychotic episode, or a spiraling suicidal depressive state, whatever it was that sent Stephan Paddock to the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, I don’t believe it was a set of soberly considered choices in the service of a program of evil.
Facts will unfold, perhaps some allegiance to a cause or personal grievance will come out. It doesn’t matter. By virtue of the fact of what was done and its total senselessness, the actor of this massacre, like Adam Lanza from Sandy Hook or James Holmes from Aurora, is most likely a profoundly disturbed individual in the grip of a psychiatric condition about which we can only speculate. “Evil” people don’t act this way. People disabled of normal thinking and brain activity do. The Paddock tragedy is no more “evil” that any of the recent hurricanes, a blind force of nature sowing human suffering everywhere.
Yet the fact that a sick individual can so easily get his hands on weapons ideal for mass killing is indeed the result of evil. The utterly berserk situation of a modern “liberal democracy” such as the United States allowing the dissemination of military-grade weaponry to the public is the result of true evil. In the teeth of the majority of Americans who favor common-sense gun control laws, it takes vulpine political will, rhetorical skill, dedication to the long game, the hijacking of noble impulses, and a willingness to do anything whatsoever to aggrandize oneself.
Meet Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, a group that… fun fact… used to have fairly enlightened ideals regarding gun ownership. Here’s one of LaPierre’s predecessors Karl Frederick, NRA President in 1934 testifying to Congress:
“I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I seldom carry one. … I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”
Fast-forward to contemporary times, and we have LaPierre dissembling with finely crafted, silver-tongued finesse. He bides his time after Newtown, waiting until national sentiment has cooled just a bit but not too much, and delivers this aphoristic jewel:
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
As if nothing could be done to prevent the bad guy from getting a gun in the first place.
Or witness the sneaky slight-of-hand here:
“But since when did the gun automatically become a bad word? A gun in the hands of a secret service agent protecting our president isn’t a bad word.”
Sure, the words “dynamite” and “polonium” are not bad words, in fact dynamite and polonium have their uses but you can’t walk into Walmart and get a kilo of each.
Or we have the chutzpah winner, a tirade that best describes the NRA but is launched against a diversionary opponent:
“There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people through vicious and violent video games.”
This one takes the cake. It takes the cake, the candles, the party hats, the table cloth, the whole goddamn birthday party. Golly gee willikers, a whole industry that is callous, corrupt, and corrupting? Stowing violence against its own people?
Can’t imagine where one of those industries could be found. It must require a crafty dulcet-toned leader, someone who is not clinically insane, in fact politically savvy and capable of executing a long term patient strategy. Someone with native intelligence and wits, wherewithal and vision, and long-term goals that are utterly to ones own selfish ends. Those are the true components of evil.
Inveighing against Stephan Paddock is a complete waste of time and energy. I don’t think I’m extending myself too far to suppose he was profoundly disturbed and ill in ways we can barely fathom. But every society, in every time and place, unfortunately will have a certain small percentage of such afflicted individuals. The fact that ours, exceptionally and unusually, offers a bath of homicidal instruments so easily available, is in fact the result of evil itself.
Daniel Sherman is an entrepreneur and writer who divides his time between Chicago and Italy. He is currently developing a book on ethics for adolescents, Good Enough.