26 December 2008
The Christmas Massacre
The news from Covina, California, raises deep questions about human nature and human motivations. The killer, who dressed up as Santa Claus, killed children and torched a family with a homemade device, is said to have had no criminal record and no history of violence. The trigger for his crime was reportedly a bitter divorce, his targets being his ex-wife and erstwhile in-laws. The response seems disproportionate to the offense. Does that make it an "evil" act? If so, should we assume that the man was latently evil all along, or shall we acknowledge that anyone is capable of evil? Need we speculate that there was anything the family could have done during the divorce that could have prevented this result, or did the killer's nature make the result inevitable once the final crisis began? We can imagine that many people might do something similar, if not exactly the same, if driven to a certain point, while others would never do such a thing under any circumstances. Is that the difference between "good" or "evil," or simply a difference in temperament? Some people might be pacific in temperament, or they might be so self-abnegating that they would simply never feel themselves entitled to do such a thing or take any kind of revenge on enemies. Is that "good," or is it 'weak?" The answer depends on the circumstances. There are times when society will want people who are capable of doing things like this, so long as they're directed at those whom society deems "the enemy." But society will also want such people to be governed completely by society's own priorities. It can't tolerate someone who declares war on his own enemies, as the man in California did. Society can't allow people to wage personal wars. That's a fundamental principle: "thou shalt not kill" understood as "thou shalt not murder," meaning "thou shalt not kill unless society (or the Lord) permits it." Society would like people with a killing impulse that has an on-off switch, but you have to wonder whether the killing impulse in most people works that way. Even if it did, some cultures wouldn't care for the idea; a society that could turn the killing impulse on or off as it pleases would be considered "totalitarian" in some places. In such places people still believe that each individual retains a primal right to save himself first. You can socialize such people to the point that they'll fight society's battles, too, but many such people probably imagine a time when they'll be at odds with society and will have to fend, or fight for themselves. However you construe it, acts like the Covina atrocity are founded on a sense of personal entitlement that isn't unrelated to our ideal of individual freedom. We won't be a truly civilized society until people stop feeling entitled to kill others. What that will take, we still have to figure out.