Can we make sense out of killing sprees?
Over the course of the past century, ”spree killings” committed by and directed toward civilians have become a regular part of our social world. It seems that we have developed a discrete category for them in our social imaginary. In the years since the Columbine massacre of 1999, the dramatically increased frequency of these killings has had the effect of crystallizing this category in our collective consciousness. When I heard about the massacres carried out this year in Tuscon and Norway, I was no less horrified than I was when I heard about Columbine, but now I feel I like can more readily name what happened. I feel like the conceptual “box” into which I place these kinds of events is more defined and accessible. And judging by the increased rapidity with which these killings have become political weapons, it would appear that the wider public is also getting better at “making sense” of this sort of violence.
Yet from a theological perspective, I wonder whether the attempt to make sense these events is not misguided at some level. Of course, we can and should make moral distinctions between certain types of killing, between murder and self-defense, for instance, or between terrorism and justified revolution. Such distinctions, however, are presumably based upon the more fundamental distinction between good and evil, which in the Christian view is not a distinction between two categories of being, but rather one between being and its privation. When it comes to killing, though, privation is always involved, insofar as killing names the act that deprives a living thing of its life. When it comes to killing, then, we are not really distinguishing between “good” and “evil, as much as drawing a line between “permissible” and “impermissible”– a line that marks the point where we become responsible for the loss of life that results from an act of killing, the point where that privation becomes attributable to us in a way that makes us sharers in it. In other words, murder is murder because it represents privation in both the victim and the murderer. For Christians, death is never an unqualified good, and so killing can never be an act of perfect virtue; the real question is whether or not the evil involved in an act of killing overtakes the one who carries it out.
And to the extent that Christians also believe intelligbility to be equally controvertible with being and goodness, there is always going to be an element of the absurd lurking within any act of killing. The violent loss of life involved in such acts always pulls them toward unintelligibility. So it should be no surprise then that the more evil such an act is, the more unintelligible it becomes. The act of shooting unarmed civilians can dress up in a variety of justifications-written in a 1500-page manifesto, perhaps-but at its core we ultimately find no ratio, no basis in any real and positive good. What we find there is madness: a lack of any true intelligibility.
And yet as has so often been the case in our history, we seek to quantify that madness and orient it toward some political or social end. Most recently, the madness of Anders Breivik has been used to associate conservative political views with “extremist violence.” Given the references in Breivik’s writings to conservative thinkers, I can completely understand the tendency to make this connection, but what it misses in my view is deep evil involved in this act, and the privation, absurdity and desparation that attends such evil.
The way I see it, what these “spree killings” have in common- and what they also share with many acts of terrorism and suicide- is a radical rejection of goodness in the world, and the goodness of other human beings in particular. As Simone Weil poignantly observed in her essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,”
Anybody who is in our vicinity exercises a certain power over us by his very presence, and a power that belongs to him alone, that is, the power of halting, repressing, modifying each movement that our body sketches out. If we step aside for a passer-by on the road, it is not the same thing as stepping aside to avoid a billboard; alone in our rooms, we get up, walk about, sit down again quite differently from the way we do when we have a visitor.
When one person deliberately kills another, they violate the threshold of this “indefinable influence,” and in doing so subject the other to a form of violence that transforms them into a thing– quite literally into a corpse. The evil of such an act on the part of the agent depends on whether or not they crossed this threshold subjectively: whether or not they reduced another human being to the status of a disposable object. The more pre-meditated and ”cold blooded” a killing is, the more guilt we associate with it. The more deliberate and unprovoked a murder is, the more evil we see in it. When we look at the extreme cases of this sort of slaughter however, at the killer of Leiby Kletsky for instance, our formulas for guilt and innocence begin to break down in the face of insanity. The qualifications and exemptions for “mental illness,” as appropriate as they may be in a legal context, should not let us lose sight of the fact that, from the point of view of Christian metaphysics, there is something irreducibly insane and irretrievably absurd about evil. Its unintelligibility and banality should not surprise us, since it is at its core an absence of true being.
These killings are evil not because they may be associated with a left or right-wing critique of society, but rather because they reflect a complete rejection of society as it is. They would rather destroy the world than live in one that does not fully conform to their preferences. That has nothing to do with any stance regarding the political common good; that is nihilism, pure and simple. Shortly after the Tuscon shootings this past January, Matt Feeney of slate.com remarked that
Jared Loughner’s despair that everything is unreal and words have no meaning amounts to hatred of the world… for its failure to resemble the words we apply to it. Faced with a choice between real people and some stupid abstraction about words, themselves mere abstractions, Loughner killed the people to defend the abstraction.
In his short volume The Mystery of Faith, Fr. Michael Himes summarizes the Christian understanding of evil in very similar terms:
Evil says no to being. God says, ‘Let there be light.’ Evil responds, ‘No! Let there be darkness.’ It denies the value of being at all. Either you are God or you ought not to be. Either you are everything or you are nothing. What is not infinite, what is merely finite, should never have been at all. …Satan is not a monster of pride; Satan is a monster of despair.
The evil that Christians should perceive in these types of killings is first and foremost not the evil of any political or ideological platform, but the evil of rejecting the finite goodness which another’s existence represents.