Less than seventy-two hours have passed since the shootings that killed thirty-two innocent people and injured another thirty at Virginia Tech. Americans can relate to what Virginia Tech President William Steger said immediately after the killings: "I'm really at a loss for words to explain or to understand the carnage that has visited our campus..."
This is especially true as a frightening picture of the killer emerges: a young man, by all accounts a loner, who, according to the Washington Post, wrote poetry about death and "expletive-filled rants against the rich and privileged." Clearly, on the dark side.
As we seek to understand what happened and why he did this, it is vital that we not exclude an important part of the equation: evil.
Faced with this kind of horror, we automatically assume that we are dealing with a madman—a word the media has already used to describe the killer. That's because we can't imagine ourselves or anyone we know doing anything remotely like this. Therefore, we conclude that something must have been "wrong" with the perpetrator.
And, since our culture is defined by what sociologist Philip Rieff called the "therapeutic ethos," the "something" that's "wrong" must be a psychological defect. Mental illness, not human evil, is our preferred explanation for what happened in places like Blacksburg or Columbine.
I witnessed an extreme example of this therapeutic thinking during a visit to a Norwegian prison years ago. Throughout the tour, officials bragged about employing the most humane and progressive treatment methods anywhere in the world. I met several doctors in white coats.
That prompted me to ask how many of the inmates, who were all there for serious crimes, were mentally ill. The warden replied, "Oh, all of them." I must have looked surprised, because she said, "Well, of course, anyone who commits a crime this serious is obviously mentally unbalanced."
Stated differently, there is no such thing as sin and evil, and the only reason why people might commit serious crimes is that they are mentally ill. Thus, the best—and perhaps, only—response to crime is behavior modification and all of those other up-to-date psychological techniques.
While the Norwegian approach would strike most Americans as very naive, the difference between them and us is one of degree not kind. We also blame crime on external factors, like mental illness, culture, dysfunctional childhood, and the like.
We are uncomfortable attributing events like this to human evil, much less to a kind of evil that seeks to undo God's creation—what Christians call the demonic.