In the Sufjan Stevens song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr,” the singer punctuates a retelling of the infamous killer’s deeds with the line: “On my best behavior, I am really just like him.”
As a Christian, Stevens’ lyric is a poignant illustration of Romans 3:23, but even in a secular sense, the sentiment is not without merit. It is an unsettling reminder that evil is universal.
In the wake of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook elementary, we in the press have spent many words trying to Other the perpetrator, Adam Lanza, and the collateral damage has been plentiful. He did this because he played video games. He did this because his mother owned guns or was a survivalist. Because he was mentally ill. Because he was a loner. Because of violence in films. Because of the NRA. There is always an external locus of control. There is always an obvious scapegoat–never an uncomfortable look at our own capacity to commit evil.
Certainly there is no moral equivalence between mass killers, their victims, or the rest of us left brokenhearted by their acts. But, more often than not, there is nothing special about them–no life-altering external force that separates them ontologically from the rest of humanity. They have simply made a choice to embrace the capacity for evil that all of us possess, and they have taken it to its ultimate conclusion–that life has no value, and they may take it from others as long as they are able.
And it is that choice which unnerves us, which shakes us to our core. No human being could have desired such a slaughter, we reason, so this boy must have been something other than human. Medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris describes that reaction as the “medicalization of evil.” She asks, “Why do we assume a person such as Lanza is ‘sick’?” This gut reaction, she asserts, gives us a tidy, reassuring, but incomplete understanding of why these atrocities happen. Fitzharris concludes, “evil is about choice. Sickness is about the absence of choice.”
And that is why many of us search for an external agent in these situations. Unless we isolate an if-then binary cause, then that leaves open the possibility that any person can choose to carry out evil, and any person includes me. And if Rousseau taught me anything, there is nothing in my person that is inherently bad; some institution of man has instilled it in me. Thus, I must find this institution and remove its perverse influence, and all will be well.
While it’s a comforting and fashionable defense mechanism, that line of thinking gets crushed to bits when we face unspeakable evil. Tragedy on the scale of Sandy Hook reminds us that our morality is far more complex than we can control. We can’t fashion a single pill or law to produce a desired outcome in human behavior, and those who think we can–unfortunately, we’ve seen this from most of the press in the last few weeks–exhibit an unrivaled folly.