The banality of evil
I have been struck by the desperate attempt to find a secret, hidden motive behind the mass murders that Stephen Paddock unleashed from his 32nd floor window of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas on the evening of October 1. With his trove of 23 weapons and endless rounds of ammunition, he unleashed volley after volley of gunfire that took the lives of at least 58 people and wounded over 527 others.
Surely, for the worst mass murder in modern American history, there must be a reason that has surfaced from the frenzy of investigations into the private life of this monster. Sadly, Time in its cover article seems to throw up its hands and doesn’t even attempt to find a motive, but spends eight pages to rehash the predictable topic of gun control that, even if every law imaginable had been enforced would likely not have stopped Paddock from his grisly massacre.
Here was a man who on the surface had absolutely no reason to kill going on a rampage that caused immense pain. At least Sayfullo Saipov, the Uzbekistani immigrant who rammed his rented truck into New York City cyclists and side walkers had a motive: revenge for American killings of ISIS followers in Iraq. Sick and cowardly though it was, he was driven by some clear ideology that, to his twisted mind and that of other Islamists, made some sense. But Paddock had no such motive.
Paddock, a wealthy land-owning ne’er-do-well, addicted to gambling and prostitutes, was the antithesis of the sort of person you would typify as a serial killer. Was he abused as a boy? Fired from a job? Jilted by a lover? Humiliated because of his race? Down on his luck at the tables? None of the above. So, what is going on?
The phrase “the banality of evil” comes from a 1963 book written by political theorist Hannah Arendt about her observations of Adolph Eichmann during his trial in Israel for his leading part in the Holocaust. Contrary to the expectations of many, Eichmann turned out to be disarmingly “normal.” That is, he showed none of the usual signs of sadism or extreme hatred towards his victims that most people might expect. Of course, he was an anti-Semite; but so were masses of other Nazi sympathizers who did not descend to his level of corruption. Eichmann consistently argued that he was simply obeying those in authority above him. Eichmann was executed in Jerusalem for his crimes.
Arendt had many detractors who have argued that she was in effect whitewashing the evil that Eichmann and many others did. But her point by calling his evil “banal” was not to excuse Eichmann nor was it to imply that everyone is equally capable of putting others to death in the macabre ways that he and other Nazis did. She was simply saying that under certain circumstances, given certain social pressures and with direct orders from above perfectly “ordinary” people might do really terrible things.
Sometime after her book was published Stanley Milgram, a Yale professor, performed his now famous “shock effect” experiment. In his 1973 Harper’s Magazine article entitled “The Perils of Obedience” he explained that his experiment was simply aimed at demonstrating that people, even those with apparently high moral values, would inflict pain on unwilling victims if the authority figures in their lives insisted that they do so. He wrote: “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
Although this might help to explain the activities of Sayfullo Saipov and others who have seen themselves as obeying some unnamed authority in the Islamic State, or who are responding to some of the more vengeful verses in the Koran that urge the killing of infidels, it still leaves unanswered the actions of a Stephen Paddock, who ostensibly was not inspired by any ideology, religion, personal slights or painful depravations.
Of course, we do not know what went on in his childhood with a bank robber as a father who was at one point on the Ten Most Wanted list. Nor do we know much about his two divorces, or his reaction to significant gambling losses. But to listen to his brother Eric, none of these seemed to have left major psychological scars on Stephen’s life. Certainly nothing is there to explain the horrific rampage that ended his life and the lives of dozens of others.
The Netflix TV series entitled “Mindhunter,” a crime drama based on a book of the same name with a subtitle: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit written by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, shows two agents interviewing imprisoned serial killers in an effort to understand how such criminals think. Putting aside its raunchy elements, though some might argue because of them, the series helps the viewer get into the minds of people like Stephen Paddock — without drawing any conclusions. Parental deprivation, early life abuse, social awkwardness with women, loneliness all seem to play a part. But the only “reason” that stood out to me was their almost universal lack of a moral conscience.
Which raises the question: what causes such a serious gap in civilized people? How can someone rape, maim and kill without the slightest apparent remorse and do so in the most gruesome and painful ways?
To read or listen to what the media is telling us, there is simply no reason. One survivor of the Las Vegas shooting wrote on the op-ed page in the Post and Courier (11/5/17) that she is still wondering “Why?”; as if to throw up her hands, she comments: “No one seems to care to figure it out.”
I am not so sure. Many people are, like her, I think are wondering “why?”; however, their worldview does not permit them to approach the question without delving into depth psychology that few people understand or into religion that many do not wish to explore. I will leave the psychology to others; but I am struck by something that Jesus said on the subject of evil. Responding to his critics that he was far too lax in obeying the sacrosanct traditions of his day, he said: “It is not what enters into a man from outside that defiles him … it is what comes out of a man that defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and they defile a man.” (Mk. 7:18-23)
This stark assessment of human nature stands in direct contrast to the Enlightenment view that stems from philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. Believing that people in their “natural state” were basically rational, tolerant and inherently good, these and others have passed on to successive generations the belief that it is what goes into a man that makes him evil. Hence the fixation that gun control, better education, firmer law enforcement, family therapy, moral instruction, sex education and a host of other good ideas (of course enacted by the state) will change a potential serial killer into an upstanding citizen.
The Christian diagnosis is both far more depressing and at the same time far more optimistic. As Hobart Mowrer, psychologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University and former president of the American Psychological Association, said: “For several decades we psychologists have looked upon the whole matter of sin and moral accountability as a great incubus and we have acclaimed our freedom from it as epic making. But at length we have discovered to be free in this sense to have the excuse of being sick rather than being sinful is to also court the danger of becoming lost. In becoming amoral, ethically neutral and free, we have cut the very roots of our being, lost our deepest sense of selfhood and identity.”
Mowrer was an atheist who sadly succumbed to suicide in 1982, but he touched on the all-important point that the category of sin was still relevant even when professionals want to erase it from our minds. Mowrer was echoing Karl Menninger who in his 1973 book, Whatever Became of Sin?, also found sin and moral accountability a freeing concept. Both believed that if sin could be named, it could also be cured.
This brings us back to the heart of the human problem, which as many have said is the problem of the human heart. Somewhere along the line, Stephen Paddock went over to the dark side. We do not know when, because we cannot look into another’s heart. We can only attempt to plumb the depths of our own. But once we turn the searchlight on our own hearts we are half way towards a solution. This is not to say, “We are all capable of doing what Stephen Paddock did.” Rather, it is to say: Because evil is endemic to the human condition, until we experience moral and spiritual redemption we are all on a trajectory towards something darker than we ever imagined.
More than 100 years ago, after his conversion to Christianity, G. K. Chesterton responded to a series of articles in the London Times that posed the question: “What’s wrong with the world?” The Times asked many of Britain’s best-known intellectuals to reply. Their answers were duly printed. Virtually all believed that something “outside” themselves was the problem. However, Chesterton in a now famous rejoinder penned a brief answer and sent it in. The Times published it. “What’s wrong with the world?” Chesterton wrote: “I am.”
Peter C Moore, D.D. is the director of the Anglican Leadership Institute based in Charleston, S.C. He is a scholar-in-residence at St. Michael’s Church. He and his wife live in Mt. Pleasant.