The recent horrific shooting in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater so fills us with anger and revulsion that our attempts to describe, much less understand, the event seem destined to fail. Yet the shooting plunges us into incomprehension and fear, and words are all we have with which to climb out, inadequate though they might be. As I read news accounts and analyses of what happened, the one word that shows up time and again is evil. Small wonder, that; if ever the word applied, it does so now. But what I’m reading about the evil perpetrated in Aurora that night contains a subtle message: because we can’t “fix” evil, tragedies like the one in Colorado are inevitable and unavoidable. While some parts of that statement are beyond dispute, others aren’t. I strenuously dispute the implication that because we can’t eradicate evil we can’t control events like this. To imply such is to let our government, our society, and ourselves off the hook.
Many have responded to the shootings by reviewing the classic arguments on the causes and nature of evil. When natural phenomena like hurricanes and disease bring about human suffering, the mystery of causation confronts us: who, if anyone, is responsible for this? But when it comes to Aurora, we know the answer to that question: it happened because an individual misused his free will to commit a violent and reprehensible act. In this case the mystery has to do with the depths of evil within the human heart: to what lengths, if any, will humans not go to hurt one another? The shooting in Aurora leads us to conclude once again that human evil is unfathomable, that we just cannot say what lies beyond our capacity to inflict harm and destruction.
Yet as we stare into this abyss, we must also admit that whatever was going on within the confines of the young attacker’s soul does not tell the whole story of this event, nor that of all the other similar tragedies in recent American history, from Paducah to Columbine to Virginia Tech to Tucson and beyond. All these events (and so many more like them) display two common features: First, individuals beset by dark and incomprehensible motivations–the “evil factor,” if you will. And second, use of those hand-held weapons that would inflict the greatest amount of damage on the greatest number of persons.
And here’s my point: Our inability to change the former does not carry over into the latter. We cannot wipe out human evil; all our attempts to do so have only resulted in more evil. Yet we can resist and contain it. Screwed-up young loners who are mad at the world, their parents, or their ex-girlfriends will always be with us. But must they always have easy access to assault rifles and tear gas grenades? To hear our politicians talk about this tragedy, you would think that 6,000 rounds of ammunition makes its way into the hands of a demented loser the way a tornado wanders into a subdivision: purely by chance. Friends, it just ain’t so.
Curing the evil that infects human hearts and leads people to kill and maim their fellow humans must await the consummation of history, when God will wipe all tears from our eyes. But we don’t have to wait for the millennium to reduce the number of Auroras our society must endure. It might be politically impossible in America right now to enact common sense restrictions on the sale of guns and ammunition. But as the example of other democracies with strong regard for individual rights demonstrates, it’s not impossible everywhere–which means it is possible here. And if we are Christian we know that with God, all things are possible.