Putting a new face on Satan

Evil: Dealing with the Colorado shootings might require society to develop a 'reinvigorated sense of sin.'

May 02, 1999|By MIKE ADAMS

FOR NEARLY two weeks, we've listened to psychologists, pop culture experts, police, politicians, educators -- even religious leaders -- as they tried to make sense of the shooting rampage at Columbine High School.

They've blamed it on the Internet, violent video games, a permissive society, the modern dysfunctional family, the gun culture, violence in films and television, bigotry, alienation, and the failure by the Littleton, Colo., school to identify the two shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, as potentially violent.

But none of the attempts to analyze Klebold and Harris managed to explain the utter horror of their actions.

Today, we often look for the internal triggers that motivate people to commit evil acts. But the European settlers who arrived in America in the mid-1600s would have had a simple explanation for a heinous act like the killing spree at Columbine High. Back then, evil had a name and face -- it was called the devil.

"When American culture began, this devil was an incandescent presence in most people's lives, a symbol and explanation for both the cruelties received and those perpetuated on others," writes Andrew Delbanco in his book, "The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost Their Sense of Evil" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995).

For these early Americans living in a much simpler age, evil and good were as much a part of their daily lives as tending their crops. Evil resulted from the Fall, the "original sin committed in Eden and imputed by God to all mankind," Delbanco writes.

In the premodern world, people lived in small agricultural units that required cooperative labor. Because self-interest was a sin, vanity and avarice were thought to be satanic vices.

By 1700, the devil was losing his grip on society. As the modern world emerged, driven by market forces and commercialism, ambition and entrepreneurship became positive characteristics. By the early 18th century, Satan had lost his power as a moral or physical symbol.

Delbanco writes: "As Satan lost his significance as a moral symbol and his plausibility as a physical being, the terms by which he was described became hybrid: the old Christian vocabulary ("fallen man") persisted, but it now had to compete with a new science of mind that no longer described human consciousness as a soul susceptible to invasion by a supernatural devil, but portrayed it as a kind of machine that was liable to disorder. ... This dissociation of the devil from the self marked the beginning of his end as a significant cultural symbol."

The Colorado school massacre is the latest in what seems to be an endless stream of unspeakably horrifying acts that we see on television and read about in the newspapers. How many of us have forgotten that April 19 marked the fourth anniversary of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City?

Each day, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse -- Pestilence, War, Famine and Death -- dominate the news. We hear of newborn babies being thrown into trash cans, the dragging death of a black man in Texas, the slayings of three female sightseers in Yosemite National Park, people having their limbs hacked off in Sierra Leone, and civilians being blown to bits in Serbia.

Oddly enough, the demise of the devil has put us in an odd situation. It has made it difficult for us to cope with the terrible images we see.

"The repertoire of evil has never been richer. Yet never have our responses been so weak," Delbanco writes. "We have no language for connecting our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes and the outer world. Philanthropy and protest seem empty gestures, arbitrary in their choice of beneficiary or occasion. It is now commonly remarked (especially since the Cruise missile entertainments of the Gulf War) that technology has carried us to the point where death by fire is indistinguishable from the puffs and crackle of a video game; and when some shocking new cruelty does seize our attention, it is likely to be met with consternation or annoyance. We shudder or wince; then we switch the channel."

It's an open question whether our society can continue to sustain itself without "some reinvigorated sense of sin," Delbanco writes. His words suggest that it's time to re-examine our reluctance to acknowledge evil as a force in the world.

Does it really matter whether Hitler and Stalin suffered from mental disorders that made them mass murderers or mental disorders that diminished their responsibility for their acts?

"This distinction would be meaningless to the scores of millions who died at their hands," Delbanco writes. "What does it mean to say that the inventor of the concentration camps, or of the Gulag, was subject to a 'disorder'? What does it mean to call these monsters mentally disordered, and to engage in scholastic debate over whether their brand of madness vitiates their responsibility? Why can we no longer call them evil?"

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