Most everywhere you turn these past few days, the horrifying killing of 26 people, primarily small children, is pronounced “a tragedy.” It isn’t a tragedy – it’s evil. Even once the killer is determined to be ill, there’s no avoiding that the unspeakable massacre of Newtown was born of human evil.
Those who permitted the all-too-lax gun laws to prevail, those who sold the weaponry – they participated in evil and in murder. So did the killer. Shooting your mother four times in the head, then spraying innocent children with bullets – if we are not prepared to name that for what is, we will neither comprehend it, nor diminish the chances of its reoccurrence.
So how should we understand what happened in Connecticut? The Greeks, who gave us the notion of tragedy, understood it as a great suffering, or a fall from grace in which the one who so suffers, aids his own demise. Former CIA director David Petraeus’s recent fall from the heights has a tragic dimension. Suicide often bears the mark of tragedy. The children and others murdered in Connecticut had no part in their terrible end. They were victims of evil, not of tragedy. Read the Greeks and Shakespeare to know what is tragic. Read the Bible and look around with discernment to be clear about evil.
Why the confusion between the two? Why is the language employed to describe Friday’s murderous rampage off base? Muddled and misguided thinking. We refuse the discussion of evil because such language flies in the face of our need to see ourselves as essentially good and decent, the ill and the aberrant among us only reinforcing the majority’s generous self-regard.
To think otherwise is to risk running afoul of the orthodoxy of modern liberalism, which requires unstinting flattery of others in public, and of ourselves in private. (Which, tellingly, is often reversed.) No wonder then that there is such clouded thinking and obfuscating language about what really matters most: the nature of the being with the power to employ good or evil in daily affairs.
The Book of Genesis is not so encumbered. It understands that goodness is real in human nature – but so, too, is evil. And that both must be named. Heartbroken over the actions of his crowning creature – Adam, the progenitor of us all – God is equally deeply regretful and realistic. “And the Eternal saw that the wickedness of Adam (the human being) was great on the Earth, and that his every intention was evil from morning until night” (Genesis 6:5). Overstated to make a point? Likely, but the point is clear and unassailable: This is a deeply flawed creature, capable of both stunning goodness and horrific evil.
And, indeed, here is where tragedy comes in – the tragic figure being God, who made this complex creature, the human. By bestowing the human with a duelling nature, as well as the power to choose how to act in the world, God unwittingly helped sow seeds of destruction which we witness more than periodically. No wonder, upon grasping human nature, that God regrets the making of the man and woman (Genesis 6:6), which is where religion comes into play.
At their best, the great religious traditions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism – recognize the flawed essence of humanity, and organize their thinking and observance to constrain our destructive impulses, all the while encouraging our better angels. Which, in the wake of murderous wrath in Newtown, means that consolation will only come in comprehending that evil is real, and that it must be named in order to be constrained.
A decent start would be enormous and unrelenting pressure, bi-partisan and across the board, on the White House to lead, and the U.S. Congress to follow suit, in vastly revamping American gun laws. These 26 in Connecticut are dead and gone; there do not have to be another 26 – there does not have to be even one person – who meet this fate before we wake up. If we don’t, that’s a tragedy – like all tragedies, of our own making.
John Moscowitz is senior rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.