See No Evil

Since the Sandy Hook tragedy, I have heard many references to “evil.”

I am in Arizona as I write this, and Governor Jan Brewer, who has signed some of the most ridiculously lax gun legislation in the country—anyone can carry a concealed weapon without so much as a background check or training—said:

There are evil, evil people in our country, unfortunately, and in the world. And I don’t know how we get our arms around it.

In his remarks during Sunday’s prayer vigil, President Obama said,

As a community, you’ve inspired us, Newtown.  In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you’ve looked out for each other, and you’ve cared for one another, and you’ve loved one another.  This is how Newtown will be remembered.  And with time, and God’s grace, that love will see you through.

When one uses evil in this context, in the context of “indescribable violence,” it is ultimately meant to describe some kind of unseen diabolical force, a force that can be contrasted to an unseen good force: “love” operating under “God’s grace.” I understand the term evil used this way. It’s how people talk about what they perceive as incomprehensible acts by fellow human beings against other fellow human beings. It is sort of shorthand for our ignorance of why bad things happen, especially why bad things happen to six- and seven-year old kids in a school classroom.

But look at this picture:


Is this the picture of evil?

That, of course, is the picture of mass-murderer Adam Lanza. The boy in that picture, some eight or nine years after it was taken, would kill his mother, twenty little kids and six adults trying to protect them, then ultimately himself. Look at that picture and tell me where the evil is.

Adam Lanza was not evil then, nor was he evil when he mercilessly gunned down helpless children. He was a seriously disturbed human being who lived in a culture that has yet to figure out how to handle seriously disturbed human beings, nor how to keep them away from dangerous weapons, some of which shouldn’t even be available to people who are not disturbed.

We can talk about common sense gun regulations, as we should, but let’s don’t pretend that we can seriously address the problem, a problem that Adam Lanza has so bloodily forced us to face, without addressing the social problems related to mental illness, and the problem of helping those who care for people with mental illnesses on a daily basis, whether it be family or institutions.

Listen to Aaron E. Carroll, who is an associate professor of pediatrics at Indiana University’s School of Medicine and the director of its Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research:

We should be careful not to blame the mentally ill for all crimes. But we should also be prepared to accept that we might be able to prevent some tragedies if we did a better job of caring for them.

I’ve seen mental health illness in children, and our system is ill-equipped to handle it. I’ve seen families struggle with it. One of my greatest frustrations with clinical practice is that there are far too many times when I lack the tools necessary to care for children who need help. It’s relatively easy to cure an infection or an acute physical ailment. It’s so much harder to take a mental health issue. There are rarely pills that will do the job. Even when they are, they almost never work perfectly to eradicate the problem.

I strongly urge you to read Dr. Carroll’s entire article. It will tell you more about how to start to better deal with the Adam Lanzas than perhaps anything you will read in one short piece. You’ll learn things like this:

If a child is actively suicidal or homicidal, an emergency room can spring into action and admit him or her for inpatient care. But that’s often all inpatient care will do. Once a child is no longer actively threatening harm to himself or others, he or she will be released. That’s what the hospital system does. It cares for the acute problem, leaving the long term, and often much harder, work to a system ill-equipped to handle it. 

And, most startling for me, I learned this:

One of the things I do as a pediatrician is “anticipatory guidance.” We ask questions about issues that have not yet occurred but might occur in the future. A lot of anticipatory guidance focuses on injury prevention. We might ask about bike helmets, or swimming, or fire alarms in the house. I even ask about guns in the home.

I don’t ask this question because I’m eager to lecture patients or parents on the morality of owning guns, or the rights of individuals under the Second Amendment. I’m asking because I’m trying to prevent injury or death. The No. 3 killer of children age 10-14 is suicide; the fourth is homicide. The No. 2 killer of children age 15-19 is homicide; No. 3 is suicide.

I have been trained to ask parents if they have a gun in the home. If they do, I ask how it’s stored. I strongly recommend that they keep it unloaded, locked up, and that they store the bullets separately. I do this because guns are part of almost 85% of homicides and more than 45% of suicides in kids 5 to 19 years old. This doesn’t even account for injuries not resulting in death.

Yet recent laws have attempted to stop pediatricians from doing even this.

If you follow the “recent laws” link above, you will find an article written by a primary care physician, who explained that during his medical interviews with patients he often asks them personal questions, some involving alcohol and drugs and sex, as well as a question that the gun lobby in his state found offensive:

In June, Gov. Rick Scott signed a law barring Florida doctors from routinely asking patients if they own a gun. The law also authorizes patients to report doctors for “unnecessarily harassing” them about gun ownership and makes it illegal to routinely document firearm ownership information in a patient’s medical record. Other state legislatures have considered similar proposals, but Florida is the first to enact such a law.

Now you can begin to see what damage the gun lobby in America is doing to the country, besides ensuring that millions of dangerous weapons are rather easily available to anyone who wants one. If we can’t even tolerate physicians asking their patients relevant questions about a potentially dangerous situation, especially one involving children, then we are a long, long way from solving the social problem of mass killings by sick people.

And calling those sick people or their acts “evil” will not help us progress toward any practical solution. And as much as I am tempted to label as evil the National Rifle Association and other groups of gun zealots, I know that doing so will accomplish nothing in terms of defeating them in the political arena.  

We, those of us who believe that the NRA and other related organizations represent an eighteenth-century philosophy that is unacceptable here in the twenty-first, must stop letting them rule the day and have their way.  We can’t call ourselves an advanced civilization when we still use Iron Age terms like “evil” to describe behavior that we have dramatically failed to address.


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  1. Duane,

    You misunderstand what really happened at Sandy Hook. According to former Arkansas governor, presidential wannabe, Fox News show host, and total fucking idiot, Mike Huckabee, that horrific massacre was orchestrated by God. Yes, that’s right. Huckabee says that God is pissed off because school prayers have been taken out of public schools. So, the obvious answer to the school shooting dilemma is simply to put prayers back in the schools and not worry about all the guns. After all, nobody wants Huckabee’s caring and loving God to get so upset that he starts killing 6 and 7 year-old kids. In fact, if it were up to Huckabee and whoever is the current head of the NRA, all the teachers would be armed too. That way, when the shooting breaks out, more kids can get killed in the cross-fire. That REALLY ought to please God!



    • Ditto the Westboro Baptist Church, which is holding a vigil, “to sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment.” Apparently, the Westboro folks failed to notice that His work was seriously flawed. After all, He missed killing the remaining 500 or so other students.

      Who needs “evil” when you’ve got a bi-polar master of the universe going around killing kids while, at the same time, picking the team that will win the big game?


      • kabe

         /  December 18, 2012

        Herb Van Fleet, When I heard Huckabees comments I thought about the Joplin Tornado. How and why did God destroy all these churches in Joplin as well as dozens of Christians? Did they not pray HARD enough?



  2. “Evil” is a religious concept, and since I’m not religious, I don’t believe in “evil” as a concept. Having said that, if anything at all can be described as an evil act, it would be the Florida law prohibiting doctors from asking patients about their guns, given how many people die every day as a result of firearms in the hands of people who, by the very nature of their acts in taking another’s life in this way, are mentally ill, by definition, and should not be allowed anywhere near any firearms.


  3. King Beauregard

     /  December 18, 2012

    The working definition I have of evil is, the willingness to cause needless harm and not feeling any obligation to take responsibility for the harm done. By those standards, it’s hard to call a mentally ill person “evil”, because they don’t have a good handle on right and wrong, on actions and consequences. Dangerous, sure, but not evil.

    Now, hacks like Mike Huckabee who try to muddy the debate for the sake of politics, thus ensuring that there will be more massacres going forward … yeah, that’s evil all right.


  4. Just an oddball (bullied?) kid who turned on those around him more than evil, but is there some of that in all instances of ‘evil’. I’ve heard Romney called a heartless bully. If so, what motivates that. Something about the Mormonism he was raised under? Often I tend to think it is not that easy to define or free-will or even be sure it exists. If it doesn’t then there’s no evil or virtue either is there?


    • King Beauregard

       /  December 18, 2012

      I kind of figure that some people can be pounded into callousness by life, while others simply never developed a faculty for compassion and don’t care to. Which is to say, I have no practical insights on this matter.


  5. janice reed

     /  December 19, 2012

    When I hear comments like the one by Mike Huckabee, mentioned in this column, it makes me wonder if these folks brains’ don’t work unless they are talking, otherwise, they would know that your lips don’t have to be moving in order to pray. Whoops, that can’t be right. Obviously, their brains aren’t working when they are talking.

    And, frankly, blaming God for all these tragic deaths, is the most evil part of this whole senseless tragedy, in my opinion.

    I agree with Duane. We need to begin to deal with the mental and emotional illness’ of our citizens. I believe that if a person is sick enough and bent on destroying other human lives, we may not be able to prevent all of these situations, but we certainly don’t need to hand them the weapon.


  6. Good post and good commentary by all, in my opinion. I note in the case of the Florida law that it has this language,

    ” . . . unless information is relevant to patient’s medical care or safety or safety of others, inquiries regarding firearm ownership or possession should not be made; . . .”

    This I see as a legislative escape clause planted to escape blame for being unreasonable, but it is unreasonable nevertheless. The law gives gun owners a legal basis for resentment and thereby forces physicians to avoid trying to influence the root causes or potential causes of injuries from gun violence. This is legislation designed to mold culture so as to benefit the gun industry.

    I think Herb’s comments about Huckabee are worthy of further mention as well. I knew he was a religious fanatic but I hadn’t realized he was that far around the bend. It absolutely amazes me how, in the absence of any evidence, people so easily accept that such as Huckabee can parse devine intention out of disasters like Sandy Hook. It makes no sense at all. To think that this man actually had a shot at being the President of the United States – it blows me away.

    I agree with Duane that the agent in the disaster was not evil but rather mental illness that could have been prevented, but if one accepts Huckabee’s assertion that God influenced this outcome, then one could argue that He condoned evil as the end result.

    “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
    – Epicurus circa 300 BCE


    • I like the way Dr. House, of the TV series, put it: “If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people.”


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