Evil: America’s Scapegoat for Gun Violence
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
In the days following mass shootings, these iconic and oft-memed words spoken by Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride occupy my thoughts. While the coverage and opinions offered by many publications and pundits are nothing short of inconceivable, the word that I see being misunderstood, mangled, and molded into an unassailable scapegoat is “evil.”
The word does have its place in this discussion. It’s used both as an adjective and a noun, but I find one better suited than the other. From Merriam-Webster Online:
Evil, adjective: morally reprehensible.
Evil, noun: a cosmic evil force.
Clearly, the adjective form is an apt descriptor for everything done by the shooters. It’s the use of the noun evil (henceforth Evil) that gives me pause. No, scratch that, it makes my blood boil. It’s irresponsible, even dangerous, especially when it comes from the mouths of our leaders. President Donald Trump, in his remarks following the Las Vegas massacre, used Evil three times in his brief speech and included it two more times after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida. But he’s not alone. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all used Evil to describe not only the morally-reprehensible acts themselves, but also their inherent nature and source.
Indeed, it is practically an American tradition to throw some blame Evil’s way. Much of that seems to be informed by Christianity, the “de facto religion” in the United States. Most flavors of Christian tradition believe Satan to be an actual being, the literal embodiment of Evil. Many sects also believe in the doctrine of “original sin.” Essentially, it states that because Adam and Eve screwed up, every human since then has been born with their sin-ledger in the red and Jesus is the only Jewish accountant who can get you into the black.
Either way, it creates an external and immutable Evil — and then normalizes it. Evil is expected, a part of the natural order. Given the prevalence of Christianity and a Judeo-Christian-centric worldview in the United States, this is a common belief. In the wake of the latest shooting, you’ve probably seen someone opine (or done so yourself) that any preventative measure will be ineffective, because Evil.
Stop it. Stop it right now. No matter what you believe about the nature of Evil, using it in this way is a deflection. It’s lazy. A selfish cop-out. It’s easier to blame the devil (or whatever the emblem of your preferred scapegoat is) than it is to create real change in our country by reforming our gun laws, a measure which has proven effective in all other developed nations. It’s less painful to cast our gaze to the heavens and plead for someone to save us from this Evil than it is to accept and admit the terrible ways our culture twists minds. The very idea of not believing in a boogeyman who perverts decent people into monsters terrifies us, because if they don’t exist, then we are responsible.
We’re responsible for letting children get gunned down in school. We’re responsible for nearly a hundred American gun deaths every day, 62% of them by their own hand. We don’t want the weight of 35,000 lives lost annually on our consciences. We don’t want to face the reality that we are not doing everything in our power to prevent these deaths.
Because even if you do believe there’s a horned being deceiving people into awful actions, we can limit the damage. I’ve heard that idle hands are the devil’s playthings. Hands can do some damage on their own, true, but it’s when they’re holding guns that dozens of lives can be erased in a moment. I can already hear the familiar refrain saying that if it’s not guns, they’ll find another way! Except that there is no way to take lives as quickly, effortlessly, and thoughtlessly as with a gun.
Bad things do exist, but lumping them together under the amorphous mantle of Evil obscures what the real problems are and prevents us from addressing them. Instead, let’s focus on the specifics. Greed exists, like the greed of our elected officials taking money from the NRA. We can fight that with campaign finance reform. Income inequality exists, which is positively correlated with crime, especially violent crime. We can fight that with better social programs. Then, maybe, we can begin to address the way our culture revels in violence.
One more thing: While I wholeheartedly support a commitment to improving mental health care, that is not what is driving the epidemic of gun violence. Throwing “mental illness” out there as a factor is slightly more accurate but no more helpful than talking about Evil, unless we create an actual plan how to improve mental health nationwide. Otherwise, we risk reducing a serious issue to just another part of the gun violence song and dance, next to blaming Evil and sending thoughts and prayers.