“Is evil only a natural defect, an imperfection disappearing by itself with the growth of the good. Or is it a real power, ruling our world by means of temptations, so that to fight it successfully assistance must be found in another sphere of being?” —Vladimir Solovyov
It is peculiar that one of the things gained by the rapid emigration of humanity from the classical and medieval epochs onto the renaissance and the enlightenment is a prize that consists in seemingly liberating loss. From the moment Machiavelli claimed that for the Prince, choosing good over evil was not in itself a good, humankind has sought to escape to more enticing, yet uncharted, frontiers where such trappings of antiquity no longer bind the human will. The past, it would seem, was bad because it limited the human imagination, whereas the future of progress, marching ever so boldly forward, ought be good simply as a matter of definition.
As this march progressed, it was easy to lose sight of what exactly was being lost by this modern way of thinking. Augustine once argued against critics in his own time who asked, pointing to the nature of his God, how could a being so benevolent either create or allow the evil that was so obviously prevalent in human history? The bishop’s response was telling: it was not God who created or allowed evil; rather, evil exists because human beings possess the capacity of knowing and being able to make choices. It would seem that from this model, the presence of a free will necessitated the existence of the alternatives from which one was choosing. As modernity grew more and more ambiguous as to the existence of virtue and vice, so too did the knowledge of each person’s free will recede from this ethos’ memory. If one could not be sure of what was right or wrong, humanity may correspondingly not be able to freely decide between these ethereal concepts.
Just a very brief amount of time has passed since the terror experienced by a theater full of innocents in Colorado. Yet, this time has seen no shortage of questions delving into the cause of such an attack. In a way, this perhaps is modernity’s grudging homage to antiquity and particularly Aristotle, seeking as humans naturally do for causal relationships in order to provide life with some form of meaning.
The first wave of intensifying queries centered around the political ramifications of the attack; predictable perhaps because this is an important election year. How did the suspect in this case, various members of the national punditry ventured, acquire the level and amount of weaponry with which he mounted his rampage? The evidence gathered from the scene spoke of an individual who knew at the most basic level what kind of equipment would produce heightened levels of carnage.
However, what is becoming more clear about the assailant is that he does not so easily fall under the standard accepted and media-promulgated stereotypes. Far from possessing some form of radical political agenda, he has been shown to have sought psychiatric support, mailing ominous correspondence to his doctor that was left unopened before the attack. Yet, whether or not this may have prevented the atrocity is at best speculation.
After this first series of speculation and questioning, an additional point was raised. How exactly did the assailant, an individual living with very humble means to support himself as a graduate student, somehow procure the capital required to purchase his arsenal? Recent reports point to his being the recipient of a considerable grant from the National Institutes of Health. It may be difficult to prove these funds were the selfsame ones used to arm the assailant. Yet, apart from this source of revenue, it remains a mystery as to what other capital was present to fund this attack.
If one seeks a cause behind the terror in Aurora with these two lines of inquiry in mind, one conceivably could point to the assailant’s unhindered access to weaponry as a major contributing factor. However, if those who provided the means for such an attack are liable, then this may logically extend to those providing the money to buy the actual weapons. Needless to say, it would be difficult to hold the National Institutes of Health liable for such wanton bloodshed.
If not these two possible causes, then where else to find cause—and summarily blame? Is it possible, as some claim, that the nation’s laws themselves are somehow flawed and therefore the cause of this attack? What is often missed when examining the Bill of Rights is the acknowledgment written in by the Founders that these laws protected a citizen’s individual freedom to choose what one wished to do with one’s life. In a sense, the Bill of Rights set limitations to the extent outside forces could influence this individual freedom to choose. As mentioned earlier however, freedom to choose implies that the individual choosing knows what is being chosen or deferred. To claim that this principle is flawed would seem to suggest it be better if an individual would have less choice, since people have difficulty in distinguishing rightness from wrongness, a deficit also apparently not shared by those making this determination.
If now it is difficult to claim those who provided the assailant with the means to commit his atrocity caused it, this logic ought to extend to laws whose specific entreaty to those adhering to them is simply to choose well. Where then may cause be found and blame be placed for this malevolence?
Again, here is where the Founders exhibit their intimacy with the intellectual gifts of antiquity; gifts that the aforementioned onward march to progress may have unknowingly or knowingly left behind. John Adams once wrote that this nation’s body of laws was only suited to a people who were “moral and religious,” or in the very least people who put into practice a word long since relegated to the borderlands of memory: virtue.
Virtue implied knowledge of its opposite, as well as the capacity of freely choosing either. An individual, community, or ethos may choose to forget about virtue and vice, or good and evil, with the expectation that such a loss of memory negated the existence of what was being forgotten. However, this does not mean these realities cease to exist. Good and evil were not only present in the film being shown in the theater that fateful night. They and the choice between them were also present, as they have always been, within the human heart and within this particular assailant. That is ultimately where cause and blame are to be found in this tragedy.
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