In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, many are asking the question that was asked after the West learned about the trains to Auschwitz, after 9/11, and after the Paris theater massacre: “Why did he (they) do it?”
We look for clues, we hear from people who knew the perpetrators, we wring our hands, but we find it hard to apply the word that best describes the act: evil.
After each of these horrendous acts of violence, the usual explanations are trotted out: mental illness, an overabundance of guns, festering grievances, addictions, brainwashing, but most of us, in our secret hearts if not our public voices, aren’t satisfied that these things adequately explain such monstrosities.
Though not popular in the sociology and psychology fields, many believe that human beings are born with a conscience. One of the most eloquent and understandable explanations for native (though not fully developed) conscience is supplied by C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. Even so, our conscience is far from fully formed at birth. Like a physical muscle, it must be exercised and developed, and this occurs via good formation.
The conscience “muscle”, properly formed, wards off evil; that is, grievously disordered behavior, but if this “muscle” becomes atrophied, or is damaged, disorder invariably results. Mental illness, addictions, strong emotions, and brainwashing can also weaken the conscience “muscle”, though a well-formed conscience can ameliorate the effects.
All human beings experience temptations, and many experience inclinations toward evil. Some succumb to the urge to commit evil acts without willfully embracing evil. Though they commit the act, they do not succumb wholeheartedly, and may later repent.
The embrace of evil is different, dismissing conscience, disregarding the welfare of others, considering the evil act and willfully committing it as the self’s prerogative. Addictions, emotions, propaganda, and mental disorders are peripheral to the willful embrace of evil. What’s more, those who dismiss conscience and willfully embrace evil are often more skilled at concealing their attitude and schemes than those who commit evil acts but are still pricked by conscience.
One cannot set aside conscience without doing grave harm to oneself. We are so wired, and we cannot un-wire ourselves and still make a pretense of being healthy. A person with a well-formed conscience could not sit in a room with Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Stalin, or Mao Zedong for ten minutes without realizing that something was very wrong,
The elimination of conscience that results in the embrace of evil—not merely succumbing to the temptation to commit an evil act—produces a grossly disordered self-regard and a cancerous self-hatred, a death wish if you will, even if the person doesn’t acknowledge it. Self-regard to the degree that no one else’s welfare matters, self-hatred as a natural consequence of the destruction of conscience and the willful embrace of evil; a form of possession in the sense that the self no longer exists apart from the evil.
Though temptations and inclinations toward evil may remain, a well-formed conscience strengthens the will to resist evil, and the experience of self-giving love is a powerful anti-virus to the “evil germ”.
The answer to the question “Why did he do it?” is evil exists, and some embrace it.