The Evil Within Us All
Those of us privileged to work on college campuses have been stunned and
heartbroken by the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech. We ache with
empathy for the Virginia Tech community, for we know all too well how
quickly tragedy can invade a sanctuary of learning. The ghastly murders
in Blacksburg kidnapped our optimism, stole our joy and left us numb
While grieving, we have also been searching for
answers -- and for lessons. What causes a student to melt down and cause
The answers have been plentiful but inconclusive.
Expert commentators -- sociologists, psychologists and neuroscientists
-- have offered many sophisticated explanations for Cho Seung-Hui's
tortured psyche and barren intensity. He was, we are told, suffering
from a cluster of toxic syndromes: psychotic depression, pathological
alienation and avoidant personality disorder. His curdled mind saw
conspiracies everywhere and found love nowhere.
sophisticated diagnoses never congeal into an inclusive explanation.
There are, to be sure, no easy explanations for heinous behavior, but
what is usually missing from the media's sound-bite analyses is an
awareness that evil still flourishes in this supposedly enlightened
world -- and that the potential for evildoing resides in each of us,
even the young, the affluent and the well-educated. Understanding our
innate propensity for malicious destructiveness requires venturing
beyond sociology and psychology into the realms of metaphysics and
Evil was a pervasive presence in American discourse
until well into the 20th century. The nation's most penetrating thinkers
took for granted the persistence of evil in the psyche -- and its
insidious allure. In the 1830s the philosopher-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson
declared that "there is a capacity of virtue in us, and there is a
capacity of vice to make your blood creep."
In his novel "Billy
Budd, Sailor," Herman Melville wrestled explicitly with the "mystery of
iniquity." At one point he characterizes Petty Officer Claggart as
having "the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training
or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate,
in short 'a depravity according to nature.'"
derived from his thorough knowledge of the Bible. In the Jewish and
Christian traditions, evil is not a function of ignorance, poverty or
broken families. Nor is it a state of mind, moral inconvenience or
chemical imbalance in the brain. Instead it is a malevolent thread woven
into the very fabric of our being. As Theodore Roosevelt reminded
people just a century ago, "There is not one among us in whom a devil
does not dwell; at some time, on some point, that devil masters each of
Yet this once widespread but now old-fashioned notion of
evil has disappeared from our everyday vocabulary. Commentators rarely
discuss unsettling abstractions such as depravity or sin or wickedness.
We live in a therapeutic age that assumes every need can be met, every
anxiety relieved, every problem remedied -- by more money, more therapy,
more regulations or more medicine. In such a curative cultural
environment, we don't feel comfortable invoking a mossbacked word like
evil. Instead we refer to evildoers as "misguided" or "deranged" or
Evil, however, is not an illusion or a state of mind
to be wished or prescribed away. It is not a simple matter of bad genes
or faulty upbringing or a corrosive social environment or the seductive
violence in movies and video games. Its congenital demons inflict the
rich and poor, urbane and illiterate, conservative and liberal,
religious and secular. As the Polish-born novelist Joseph Conrad
explained, "The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not
necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness."
will never know why evil exists. It simply is. It can neither be
confidently understood nor blithely overlooked. Yet its mystery should
not paralyze us. To ignore the power of evil is reckless, to bewail it
senseless. We are not impotent in the face of malevolence. The
recognition of evil's remorseless power should excite us to action.
Teresa once confessed that when she first saw lepers, she recognized in
herself a demonic "little Hitler" who wanted to obliterate the
disfigured sufferers. Instead, she embraced them. Virtues such as
decency, courage, honesty and compassion remain our best weapons against
the malignancy within. Like Mother Teresa, we need to acknowledge our
inner demon and confront its perplexing impulses -- even as we
acknowledge that evil will never be eliminated.
At Virginia Tech,
and at colleges and universities across the country, the healing has
begun amid the fellowship of loss. Shared sorrow helps make humans more
humane. There are no strangers on a campus filled with grief; pain binds
our hearts together -- and renews our resolve to deliver ourselves from
despair and the menacing evil that lurks within.
-- David Shi is a historian, writer and president of Furman University