At a time when Americans agree about little, it’s safe to say that mass shootings, and those who perpetrate them, are evil. “He’s just an evil person,” Mayor Dee Margo of El Paso said of the white nationalist who killed 22 people and wounded 26 more. “Unspeakable evil,” agreed Sen. Ted Cruz. “We are outraged and sickened by this monstrous evil,” intoned President Trump, in describing both the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings. But what, precisely, do people using this word mean? As Megan Garber points out this week in TheAtlantic.com, blaming abstract “evil” serves to suggest that America’s ongoing massacres are inexplicable and unpreventable. It absolves gun laws. It frees from blame the political leaders and cable TV hosts who have fueled white “replacement” fears and dehumanized the very “invaders” the El Paso gunman used his assault rifle to exterminate. “Evil, used as a talking point, both throws up its hands and washes them,” Garber says.
The best definition of evil I’ve heard comes from Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco, who has devoted much of his life to its study. Evil, he has concluded, springs from “the absence of imaginative sympathy for other human beings”—a choice not to care about their suffering. The potential for evil in all of us can be activated, Delbanco says, when people come to believe that inflicting pain and death on others serves a higher purpose, such as establishing ISIS’ caliphate or preserving the white race’s dominance. In El Paso, witnesses said, the gunman stalked his prey with cold fury, shooting two children, many grandparents, a couple who shielded their baby with their bodies, and several weeping people who pled with him, “Por favor. No.” In his manifesto, the gunman said that only mass killings can repel “the Hispanic invasion of Texas” and “remove the threat of the Hispanic voting bloc.” His acts were evil, but not inexplicable.