By Tom Baxter
When the horror film “The Exorcist” came out in 1973, the Boston Phoenix interviewed several experts of different sorts on the film’s significance as a pop culture examination of the great struggle between good and evil. One of them was a drug councilor familiar with the worst ravages of inner-city street life, who thought the movie got it all wrong in portraying such a sharp conflict between the demon and its exorcist. In reality, he said, “Good and evil roll around together like puppies at play.”
It’s funny how a line will stick with you, long after the original subject fades into obscurity. That one comes back to me every time the concept of “pure evil” is invoked, as it was last week after the shooting. Not the two cops in Topeka who were shot Sunday night, or the mother whose boyfriend shot her in front of her children the Sunday before in Columbus, but the big shooting, the one everybody’s talking about.
Evil walked tall last week in Connecticut, but evil should not be confused with its aftermath. Evil isn’t pure, or hard-edged, or easy to pin down. Evil is like the cancer that can change its nature in response to the treatments fighting it. It’s like a soft-point bullet that flies apart upon entering the flesh to do the greatest damage. It fits in rather well, like most of these shooters’ families.
Come on down to the Capitol next month, if you want to see the puppies at play. The state already is turning out of its group home system young men with mental problems, much like those we’re being told we should have been on the look-out for, due to the severe budget cuts of the past few years. But Gov. Nathan Deal has warned that despite an improving state economy the outlook for the coming year is still bare-bones.
You won’t see any pure evil in the room when the legislators come down to hard choices over the budget for the state’s mental health program in the next legislative session, but if you want to personify it, rest assured evil will be in the room keeping an eye on things. Most everyone will mean well and there will be valid arguments for spending more or less, but down the line somewhere one decision will have a little better or worse impact than another.
“My name is Legion, for we are many,” the Gadarene madman tells Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. A legion of causes, some indisputable, some controversial and some completely off the wall, have been offered up as reasons for the horrible thing that was done last Friday morning. There’s even one circulating which links both the Aurora and Newtown shootings to the LIBOR scandal.
“We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction,” President Obama said in his Newtown speech Sunday night.
That’s the problem with speaking of evil as if it only visits. For the victims, it can be the only way to comprehend a tragedy of this enormity, but for a nation it can be a means of avoiding the possibility of doing something about it.
By coincidence, another madman attacked another school Friday morning, in China, with a knife. He injured an elderly woman and 22 children, some of whom lost ears or fingers. None of them died. Bespeaking the deep flaws in their society, the Chinese media has been muted about the incident in that country, focusing on the U.S. shooting instead.
But the contrast between what evil can do with a knife and what it can do with a Bushmaster is too immediate and stark to be ignored in this country, either. And in the upcoming debate over assault weapons, some details of this most recent incident loom large.
If the causes of violence are many, the perpetrators of spectacle crimes like the one last week fit a much tighter profile than Islamic militants. Almost without exception they are remembered as introverted young men who seemed fairly normal at the end of childhood and became more isolated throughout adolescence. They bring a lot of guns and other gear with them, and often dress in dark, military-style gear.
The Connecticut shooter’s problems seem to have been more visibly pronounced than some of his predecessors, but what really sets him apart is that he was much more proficient. His rifle didn’t jam. He killed the teacher and every single child in one classroom and would have done the same in another, but for the heroic actions of another teacher. He killed himself as soon as the first responders arrived, but he was equipped with enough ammunition to keep on shooting for a while.
All that will draw the debate over assault weapons like the one he used in much sharper terms. It’s not this shooter but his mother – struggling to keep control of an unraveling family situation, fearful of a time when she might need such a weapon in the midst of societal collapse – who is likely to occupy the narrative as the gun control debate unfolds. She made him a more deadly shooter.
One more thought, not about the massive problem of madness in general or violence in America, but specifically about these shooters. A group which might have a special aptitude for spotting them, reaching them, and in the worst case protecting innocent people from them, are the recently-returned veterans for whom there presently is a shortage of employment. They after all have seen suicidal violence at close range. What could they do to combat it closer to home?