Is “Just Plain Evil” a legal definition? Is it a helpful definition? Or were the editors of “The Daily Beast” trying to make a theological point when they created the headline for Shapiro and Pelisek’s article on the legal strategies to be employed in the trial of James Holmes?
According to the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins,
Evil has got distinctly worse over the millenia. Originally it seems to have signified nothing more sinister than ‘uppity,’ and in the Old and Middle English period it means simply ‘bad’; it is only in modern English that its connotations of ‘extreme moral wickedness’ came to the fore.
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines “evil” as:
1. Morally depraved
2. Doing or tending to do harm
3. Causing discomfort, pain, or trouble
4. Unfortunate, miserable, difficult
James Holmes has without a doubt behaved in a “morally depraved” manner. He has done irreparable “harm,” and has caused incalculable “discomfort, pain, and trouble”. He is certainly an “unfortunate, miserable, and difficult” person. There is no label that can render his actions anything other than heinous.
But does the horror of his behaviour make James Holmes either “Insane or Just Plain Evil”? Are we content to label as “Just Plain Evil” every person who has ever acted in a “morally depraved” manner, or who had done grievous harm, or caused great pain to another, or been difficult to live with?
What are we trying to gain by labeling a person “Just Plain Evil”?
We aim to gain three things when we affix the “evil” label:
1. We label things as evil in an attempt to make sense of our world. If we can accurately describe every reality we encounter, no matter how horrific, perhaps the world is not really as threatening as it sometimes seems. We are compelled by a powerful urge to create the illusion of a safe world. If identifying a person as evil helps us feel secure, it seems a worthwhile exercise.
2. By labeling a person evil, we announce that we are not that person. He is evil; we are not. Thus we separate ourselves from the horrendous acts the “evil” person has performed. We do not have to look at our own lives. We can avoid facing the possibility that there may be any similarities between ourselves and the person or the action we have named “evil”.
3. Most of all, when we name something “evil”, we avoid having to face the full reality of the often chaotic, unpredictable, terrifying nature of life. The truth that James Holmes makes it difficult for us to avoid is that life is often disordered. There are forces at work over which we simply have no control. There are not enough hand guns in all the world, to ensure our absolute safety.
If we resist the temptation to believe we have dealt with the James Holmes of this world by labeling them as “evil”, how will we respond to the anarchic vision of life such realities force upon us?
We can buy a gun. We can call for a greater police presence in every corner of the world we feel might be threatening. Or, we can allow the threatening circumstances of life to open us to a deeper reality within ourselves where we find a security, strength and peace that will never be provided by any external security measure.
We live in an uncertain world. Terrible things happen in this unpredictable world we occupy. If we cannot discover within ourselves a deep trust in the ultimate goodness of all reality, we will live always on the edge of terror and insecurity.
James Holmes’ actions were undoubtedly evil. But, the man himself is merely a manifestation of the reality that there are chaotic forces at work in the world that we can neither control nor comprehend. Labeling the person “evil” will neither control nor protect us from those forces. But allowing the horror of his actions to encourage us to open to a deeper reality may lead us to a place of peace even in the midst of the inevitable chaos that characterizes much of life.