The inescapable motive

Here is my column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday. It’s a bit esoteric… I know.

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” The enigmatic words of “The Shadow” immediately came to mind upon hearing Clark County (Nevada) Sheriff Joe Lombardo discussing his office’s final report on the 2017 mass killing in Las Vegas.

While the 187-page report contains a detailed account of the events surrounding that day, the investigators couldn’t determine the killer’s motive. There is not any evidence that he was engaging in an act of terrorism, revenge or targeted murder. He was not acting on behalf of any group or cause. He was not demonstrably insane or angry. The only motive left is the most obvious. He was just evil.

We all intuitively know that evil is at the root of every mass killing like the one in Las Vegas, but we are uncomfortable with acknowledging that evil can act by itself without an identifiable motivator. Surely the killer must have been angry about something in his personal life or some injustice in the world, right? Surely society must have failed him in some way or missed the early signs. Surely there is some law or policy that could have prevented such a wonton act of carnage. Surely there was something that forced the evil in this man’s soul to the surface to explain such a physical manifestation of rage.

In this case, all evidence indicates that the killer committed an evil act for no other reason than that he was evil. Acknowledging this is unsettling to us because it challenges some deeply held convictions about our place in the universe.

It is in our human nature to want to explain everything. This drive pushes us to study, learn, experiment and explore. It is a drive that has pushed us to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. It is also part of our human nature to have the hubris to think that we can explain everything.

It is a challenge to our inflated self-worth as a species to be confronted with things that are beyond our explanation. It defies our nature to acknowledge that there are things that are beyond human understanding and are only knowable to God. Understanding that evil exists and that it cannot be “fixed” with the tools of this world is to understand that our place in the hierarchy of the universe is not at the top.

When it comes to public policy, we continually try to fix evil without ever acknowledging that the goal is unattainable. Whenever something like this happened, we flail about looking for some law or technique that would have prevented it just to see evil manifest in a different way. Our Sisyphean efforts are forever unrewarded.

That is not to say that we should not try to mitigate the impact of evil in our society. Reasonable laws, rigorously enforced, are the hallmark of an orderly society. The issue becomes when our policy efforts shift too much power from individuals to government. While evil can never be eradicated, evil’s power can be amplified when augmented by the implements of government. The Las Vegas killer was no more or less evil than Mao Zedong, Ismail Pasha or Joseph Stalin, but the Vegas killer’s ability to carry out destruction was vastly limited compared to those monsters. Evil diffused is more bearable than evil concentrated.

Another quote came to mind when considering the implications of evil in our world. The late Secretary of State Dean Acheson once said, “much in life could not be affected or mitigated, and, hence, must be borne.” Indeed it must. But not without the hope of a better world to come.