I never planned to write about this tragedy but something quite uncanny occurred that made me decide to write a reaction to what happened in my New England neighborhood. Today at the library I looked over and noticed one of my old students reading in a corner (I worked at a private school for the “emotionally disturbed”). The student is much older now and I see him from time to time always alone walking in what I know to be a reality all his own. The uncanniness to seeing him today was the fact that this man could have easily done what Adam Lanza did in Connecticut. Some of the same traits I remember occurred in this man (then boy): nervousness, violent outburst, an imagination similar to a Phillip Dick novel, etc. He was also diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (which means something but surely not any predisposition to violence). This allowed me to ask the question that I am thinking about now; Is this man “evil” like I have heard or read the reports coming from different news agency describing Adam Lanza?
A passage in Jacob Needleman’s book Why Can’t We Be Good, “The stain of human evil covers the earth and seeps into all man’s achievements in art, science, and in the institutions of society. Religion as we know it cannot change it nor, it seems, even understand it. Our science of psychology, so full of hope only a few decades ago, cannot change it or understand it. Government cannot control it nor, most often, even refrain from manifesting it itself” (I am not sure what page this was on, I wrote it down in a notebook). Besides agreeing with Needleman I must also take him to task, because he basically defined what evil is or basically how we come to understand it.
Alenka Zupancic explains that evil and the idea of ethics meet at a particular point, cross over into each other because both should be placed into the “impossible” The impossible in this instance is not related to something that does not occur, as we know this horrendous act did occur, turn on the banal box on your wall where the bigger is always better dictum seems to be true. The impossibility is close to what Lacan called the Real of the situation, the event that is unable to be articulated or symbolized no matter how much we talk about it, even the absolute form of evil similar to other atrocities that occurred but perhaps unable to be assimilated into any historicity. As Alain Badiou writes, “The measure must itself be unmeasurable, yet it must constantly be measured”. However, this unsayable aspect of evil again intersects very much with something that is unable to be thought unless we are talking in terms of theology and God.
To move far away from a theological aspect of evil (for now) let me briefly look to our closest ancestors. Jane Goodall in Gombe wrote for the first time shattering the myth that nature was all blissful and chimpanzees were gentle creatures. She explained that violence is mostly a male dominated trait in chimpanzees and often she noticed a “patrolling” party of chimpanzees going off to purview other communities of chimps, and on occasion would attack the other chimpanzees not in their group, even to the point of killing and cannibalizing the infants. This act is usually seen among primatologist as an act of aggression that sends a clear territorial message similar to the United States drone war that occurs in other primates. Can we conclude this as an evil act or can we agree with Alain Badiou again that “Evil is a category not of the human animal, but of the subject?”
This also brings me to an extremely thought-provoking study by Roberto Esposito: Third Person. In the chapter titled Person, Human, Thing Esposito argues against the idea of the ‘person’ and how we have come to see what this term means within a juridical setting. It begins with Hobbes where we see the a chasm open up between the idea of what a person is, and how it becomes separated, “A person, is he, whose words or actions are considered, either as his own, or as representing the words or actions of another man, or of any other thing, to whom they are attributed..and when they are considered as representing the words and actions of another, then is he a feigned or artificial person”. Here we see the chasm between on the one hand a natural person and then the chasm of separation artificial person.
Esposito goes on in this chapter to show us how the semantic designation of the word person seems to be at fault here. The word already opens up its double, it already places an I thou distinction within it. This relates to what we are talking about in the already semantic war of words we see highlighted: monster, animal, evil, Asperger, and many other words in order to separate this tragedy from ourselves as persons. The problem with this crime and many others is the lack of a Kantian “pathological” motivation. This does not mean there was no pathology in our sense of the term but the Kantian sense is that there was no motivation surrounding money, greed, or any other obvious thing. This seems to be an act of evil for the sake of evil, so can we call it a ‘diabolical evil’ ?
Diabolical evil is a horror beyond measure, and as we can see to this point this murder is not something we can easily scoff off as we want to by declaring it an Asperger’s problem, an animal problem because it clearly is not. I have worked with many Asperger’s and children on the spectrum and almost all of them (besides this one kid/man who spurred this article on who was sitting in the library) would not be likely to commit an act like this.
Would I claim the man sitting in the library, my old student is what we call the theological order of evil? I am completely unable to state he is evil. I am unable to state he is an animal, a monster, or any of these adjectives that make us feel better about what we consider our humanity. I can state that the coordinates we are asking these questions from are no longer adequate. I also feel we are all complicit in the nightmares or the exceptions that occur that give rise to the uncanny Real that occurs on our watches.