Setting aside for a moment the immediate reaction of the media about policy, let’s first try to understand this heinous act for what it is — evil. True, countries need militaries, homes need protection, cities police, and all schools should have armed guards and metal detectors because there will always be outliers who escape the law and order. Obviously, the shooter should be locked away for life or punished capitally (which is worse?). Obviously, there should be heavy consequences for the authorities whose total lack of thoroughness and neglect allowed a completely evil and crazy person to roam free.
What is evil?
Over the weekend, I was learning the daily portion of Likutei Amarim, at the end of Chapter 29, where, the Alter Rebbe explains that evil has no substance, that, like darkness, evil is banished by light. But clearly, evil exists. How could he say that the darkness of evil should be simply banished with light? Clearly, evil exists.
At the macro level, at the start of the twentieth century, there was the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey, the Assyrian Genocide and the Greek Genocide also at the hands of the Turks and the latter with the contribution of the Persians. More recently and more famously there was the Nazi regime, Italy under Mussolini, and Russia under Stalin. On the local level, in 1992 there was the Oklahoma City bombing, in 1999 the Columbine High School massacre, in 2001 we all felt the pain and anger following 9-11, and in 2007 the Virginia Tech shooting. Clearly, evil exists. The list goes on and on — mass murder and evil is a part of human nature and ostensibly an inescapable reality. If it isn’t shootings, it’s knives, bombings, and fists and blunt objects. And if it isn’t murder, it’s violence in general.
So what does it mean that evil, like darkness, has no substance and can be banished by light?
Based on the earlier chapters of Likutei Amarim and after having read Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning, I’ve come to understand that evil exists within us. All of us are capable of acting on our evil, but it begins in the mind. The thoughts we allow ourselves to entertain become the idea we speak about and eventually, act upon. If we think evil — and you can set the bar higher or lower for your parameter for evil — we end up speaking evil; we’ll lie, deceive, slander, and defame. Once we feel comfortable speaking evil, our standard of evil goes down and eventually we can do evil. Evil starts in the mind of individuals and individuals make up societies and regimes. Again, there are people who are clearly mentally unwell who lack all sympathy and will commit heinous acts on innocent people. However, evil acts begin with evil thoughts, and evil thoughts, like darkness, can be dispelled with non-evil thoughts.
What can we do?
We can start with ourselves in daily life. We should do our best to rid our minds of evil — letting go of grudges and baseless hatred and replacing those feelings with forgiveness, cooperation, and friendliness. We should free our speech of evil by not speaking slanderously unless there is a danger or monetary loss involved with silence. And we can, as a result, not steal — even a pen — or act with violence unless our lives or property are in danger. With these simple steps, we can become good — or at least, not evil — and through the power of friendship influence our friends and family. How is it that fashion trends get started? How is it videos go viral? Why is it that you say what you say and do what you do? While some preference is inherent, as social beings, we are influenced by the people around us. The converse is equally true: what you do, what you say, and how you think, influence the people around you. While you can’t change others and you shouldn’t be a tyrant, you can through friendship influence others around you to be good.
Evil has no substance in its source. And its source is in the mind.
One positive thought is light that can banish an evil thought. While evil actions are undeniably real, we as individuals — and by extent — societies can be good. We can banish evil from within ourselves by filling our minds with light, by speaking kindly and truthfully and by being benevolent to the people around us. And perhaps, during their childhood, the mass murderers and criminals of every sort in our society could have been saved from following the path of evil. If they had been introduced to morality, personal responsibility, and emotional regulation.
We can start with ourselves.