PETER DAY. One of us: the sanity behind an act of insanity

“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the Right of the people to Keep and Bear Arms shall not be infringed.”  (U.S. Constitution, 2nd Amendment)

 Thanks to the literalist and, thus, intellectually corrupt interpretation of this archaic 18th century sentence, there are more guns in the United States today than there are citizens – over 300 million. Indeed, the 2nd Amendment ‘gundamentalism’ that abounds continues to wreak havoc on its people. The U.S. is at war with itself; a war in which only the innocent are being targeted.

Everything that man did leading up to and including the Las Vegas massacre was done with what appears to be a clear and rational mind; one that engaged in meticulous, thoughtful planning: the advanced booking of his 2nd Amendment Rights ‘Command Centre at the  Mandalay Hotel, the sneaking in of his  2nd Amendment Rights hardware in ten suitcases, the calm assembling of the tripods on which to sit and manoeuvre his 2nd Amendment Rights hardware, the situating of a perfect line of sight from which his 2nd Amendment Rights hardware could do its worst, the use of a hammer to break open the window clearing the way for his 2nd Amendment Rights hardware to rain down bullets on 20,000+ innocents dancing, singing, sitting, smoking, drinking, loving, laughing, playing.

That man, like the majority of those who perpetrate these mass shootings in the U.S., was not psychotic or deranged – he was remarkably ‘normal’ and ordinary: he was one of us, for goodness sake! He dressed like one of us; had an everyday job like one of us; looked like one of us; was unspectacular like one of us; had no criminal history like one of us; did the odd good deed like one of us.

 Yet, one of us also became a monster – a perpetrator of unspeakable evil.

Inevitably, we are left grappling with how is this so? and the even more problematic why is this so?

Perhaps these questions are best addressed by those who have confronted evil face-to-face and have dared to seek to unmask it.

Two extraordinary people come to mind; one an Italian chemist, the other an American political philosopher: Primo Levi and Hannah Arendt, respectively.

Arendt, a Jewish refugee from Germany, was a prolific writer and thinker. In 1962 she was tasked by The New Yorker to cover the trial of the notorious Nazi, Adolf Eichmann – one of the chief architects of the holocaust.

What became clear, if counter-intuitively, to Arendt as she observed the Nazi ‘monster’ in the dock was that he presented as anything but a monster: his ordinariness, even ‘normalcy’ stood out.

“The sad truth,” she said, “is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Indeed, it was Arendt who coined the controversial and oft misunderstood phrase, “The banality of evil” – she was even accused by some of trivializing it.

After much toing and froing with her critics, she concluded:

It is… my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.

Primo Levi confronted the worst manifestation of Eichmann’s banality during an eleven months internment at Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland (Feb 1944 – Jan 1945).

His time there stirred him to pen the remarkably dispassionate, even understated autobiographical tale, If This Is a Man.

The horror he unveiled soon made him a public figure, forcing him to re-live the nightmare over and over as questions rained down from near and far in public and private forums. Most of them were easily enough addressed, but one question continued to stump him: “Mr Levi, can you explain why this happened?”

He spent thousands of hours grappling with the seemingly impenetrable “Why?” of evil. Having peered under its mask, Levi concluded:

 Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify. Let me explain: ‘understanding’ a proposal or human behaviour means to ‘contain’ it, contain its author, put oneself in his place, identify with him. Now, no normal human being will ever be able to identify with Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Eichmann, and endless others. This dismays us, and at the same time gives us a sense of relief, because perhaps it is desirable that their words (and also, unfortunately, their deeds) cannot be comprehensible to us. They are non-human words and deeds, really counter-human… [T]here is no rationality in the Nazi hatred; it is a hate that is not in us; it is outside man…

It would be a lot easier if that man in Vegas was a deranged psychotic – an ‘alien’ from another planet, you might say. Because what he did was “counter-human”; what he did is “outside man” – he can’t be, he mustn’t be, one of us. But he was.

It prompts the question: “What does western scientific rationalism have to say about a seemingly inexplicable, non-material entity that leads the ordinary and sane to a place of depraved insanity?”

Peter Day is a Catholic priest in Canberra.

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One Response to PETER DAY. One of us: the sanity behind an act of insanity

  1. Geoff Edwards says:

    It is not clear, Fr Day, whether your question is a plea for insight from science to a puzzle that philosophy and religion cannot answer; or a rhetorical challenge for science to expose its inability to explain a phenomenon that lies within the domain of philosophy or religion.

    As both a scientist and a person of faith, I will endeavour to answer both interpretations.

    Partial scientific explanations of human behaviour can be found in psychology, psychiatry, human physiology, neurobiology and other disciplines. These disciplines explain that although human behaviour and the emotions or motives that drive it tend to be popularly explained in the language of values – good and evil, balanced and unbalanced, wise and foolish, Left or Right etc – behaviour is to a large extent a product of biological forces such as genetic influence, hormones, diet, poisons, and diseases. Science can explain that certain vitamins and minerals are essential for optimal functioning of the brain and that certain drugs conduce lead to irrational or psychotic behaviour. For example, the “demons in the head” that trigger a violent psychopathic attack can be explained by malfunctioning brain chemistry, perhaps mediated by the drug ice, with no need to postulate the existence of satanic demons.

    Having said that, the qualifier “to a large extent” is vital. Most scientists accept the limitations of scientific method and concede that the scientific interpretation is parallel to one based in religion or philosophy. Human rationality is bounded and always will be.

    A weakness of contemporary science is that it is specialised (reductionist) and the agents (CSIRO, for example) that might otherwise pursue transdisciplinary integration are chronically underfunded or otherwise under siege from economically rationalist governments and business who demand that researchers spend their time only on practical solutions to commercial problems – and from cultural warriors of the press. So holistic explanations of human behaviour are scarce.

    In short, science can’t routinely or necessarily explain why a particular individual committed particular crimes. But it can describe many of the preconditions on the one hand for well-being and on the other for criminal behaviour. A very large number of these lie in biophysical conditions and functioning of the mammalian human body.

    Christians hold that the divine Jesus was also human: he ate wheaten bread and drank fermented grape juice. That humans are both biological mammals and created in the image of God should be relatively easy for Christian scholars to accept.

    I’m happy to have another attempt and answering your question if the above is not on target.

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