This is how our President defined the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, an event that is by now largely forgotten, except for the victims and their families, of course. This comment is one of many all-too-predictable reactions, a kind of communal knee-jerk, which has become a cultural meme. And the media seem to concur.
But no, it wasn’t. There is no such thing as pure evil, just as there is no such thing as pure good. These are stereotypes, handy shortcuts, mainly useful if you want to sidestep any serious, in-depth analysis.
This meme is based on another, that of “free will.” Having recently read Sam Hariss’s mercifully brief book of the same title, and after discussing the issue around the campfire over the last night of our Fall retreat at Watershed, the connection between the two memes stands out in stark relief, at least for me. It becomes clear, on closer examination, whether from a psychological-backed-by-neuroscience point of view, such as Mr. Harris employs, or from a merely social-and-common-sense-logical perspective, that the two memes are inextricably interconnected. As Harris asserts:
The belief in free will has given us both the religious conception of “sin” and our commitment to retributive justice. The U.S. Supreme Court has called free will a “universal and persistent” foundation for our system of law, distinct from “a deterministic view of human conduct that is inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminnal justice system”...Any intellectual developments that threatened [the legitimacy of] free will would seem to put the ethics of punishing people for their bad behavior in question.
Again we mark the black-and-white-no-gray-area opposition, typical of our public dialog [brackets mine] comparing free will as an alternative to determinism, as if there is nothing in between, no room for any more nuanced analysis. And we should note that this presidential “opinion” is meant for public consumption, predictably reinforcing the usual self-serving, divide-and-conquer stratagem characteristic of such pronouncements from on high, while offending no one of any real political consequence.