Schrödinger’s Serial Killers
Notes on the complexity and simplicity of evil.
Dear Reader (Including those of you who don’t have the stomach for today’s “news”letter),
I’ve been forcing myself to follow the coverage of the Uvalde school massacre, and I do mean forcing myself. Even more difficult, I am forcing myself to write about this horror, even though I sincerely don’t want to. I’m not doing it out of some great obligation to explain, never mind solve, anything, because I don’t have any explanation you haven’t heard before and I don’t think there are any perfect or comprehensive solutions. I just feel like ignoring something like this because we’ve become so accustomed to the horror or because the topic is so complicated and exhausting is a little cowardly. When something this evil happens, it should dominate the conversation, even if I’d much rather discuss something else.
So let’s discuss solutions.
My colleague, David French has done everything shy of wearing a sandwich board and clanging a cowbell to make the case for red flag laws.
My colleague Declan Garvey has a really good interview with Adam Lankford, who has studied such events for a long time. Among his recommendations is that we should stop lavishing so much attention on the murderers. Don’t keep repeating their names to the point where they become household names. Some of these killers are attracted by the idea of becoming famous, so don’t make them famous.
I heard a piece on NPR yesterday. Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep asked education correspondent Cory Turner what schools can do. Turner responded (italics mine):
“They can do a few things. There has been a lot of movement in recent years toward hardening schools—so adding police officers and metal detectors. But honestly, the experts I spoke with say schools should focus on softening to support the social and emotional needs of students. In that 2018 call to action I mentioned, experts recommended a national requirement that schools, quote, ‘maintain physically and emotionally safe conditions and positive school environments that protect all students and adults from bullying, discrimination, harassment and assault.’ The Secret Service found among the school gunmen they studied, 80 percent had been bullied, and three-quarters had some kind of disciplinary history at school, which is why the Secret Service also recommends schools implement what they call a threat assessment model, where trained staff, including an administrator, a school counselor or psychologist and some kind of law enforcement representative all team up to help identify students who exhibit red-flag behaviors and get them help before there's a crisis.
You’re probably familiar with many other diagnoses and prescriptions out there, from banning “assault rifles” to universal background checks.
All of these things sound either right or defensible to one extent or another, but what if they’re wrong?
I’m going to get to that question, but it’s worth realizing that in some ways the scarier “What if” is, “What if they’re right?”
What I mean is, what if the experts know exactly why America is plagued with murderers who want to do these things and have developed the best possible strategies for combating this scourge?
It still wouldn’t solve the problem.
Take bullying. If, as reported above, 80 percent of school gunmen had been bullied, that still means that 20 percent weren’t. Eradicating all bullying—an impossibility, by the way—would still leave those 1 out of 5 school shooters for whom bullying wasn’t a factor.
Still, let’s accept that there’s a strong causal link between bullying and becoming a mass shooter. There’s still the fact that most people who are bullied in school don’t become mass murderers. It’s a bit like the law of large numbers—at least in a “math for English majors” kind of way. It is obvious at this point that bullying, but also video games, rap music, or even Dungeons and Dragons (once the basis of a moral panic), do not cause most people to become murderers. If they did, we’d have hundreds of millions of murderers on our hands, maybe even billions if you think globally. But that doesn’t mean that some people aren’t more likely to become murderers (or rapists or whatever) because there was just something about Halo or Grand Theft Auto or getting stuffed in a locker one too many times that set them off.
One in every 230 million people suffer from aquagenic urticaria, the scientific term for being allergic to water. Because that number is so small, pretty much no one talks about water giving people hives. Instead, to the extent we talk about them at all, we say there are some tiny number of people who have bizarre reactions to water-exposure. We certainly don’t have a lot of laws designed to protect people from allergic reactions to water.
So, when we talk about how X or Y creates mass shooters, we should understand that X and Y also don’t cause people to become mass shooters. It’s a bit like the uncertainty principle. Some statements really are both true and untrue.
Consider irresponsible rhetoric. Last week, after the Buffalo shooting, there was a lot of talk about how uttering anything that even sounds like “replacement theory” causes violence. I think there’s a good argument for this and a good one against it, because both positions are meaningfully correct. “Fill in the blank with whatever radical ideology you want,” Lankford says in his interview. “There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions of people with that ideology who nevertheless wouldn’t commit these crimes. So what’s really making these people different is not just the ideology, but the homicidal and often suicidal tendencies.”
What if everyone’s wrong?
I don’t want to get into the statistical weeds, but let us take as a given that horrors like we saw in Buffalo and Uvalde have been increasing since the Columbine shooting. That still doesn’t mean Eric Swalwell is right when he says, “It’s a lie to tell our children that they are safe at school.” Broadly speaking, America’s 54 million school children are safer at school than they are on the drive to or from school. But while engaging in the statistical arguments is legitimate if it’s in response to statistical claims, talking about the numbers misses the point. As a country, it is wholly legitimate to take the view that any number greater than zero is unacceptable and taking as many feasible actions as possible to get as close to zero is prudent. Things like slavery, murder, or torture are unacceptable, whether the number of victims is large or small. The quality of evil is not dependent on the quantity of abuses. Acknowledging that a moral ideal may be impossible to achieve is never, in itself, an argument against the ideal. It is merely an argument against policies that gauge costs and benefits unreasonably. It’s the difference between saying “Every life is precious” and “If X saves even one life, it’s worth it.” We could ban cars tomorrow and save thousands of lives, but we don’t for obvious reasons—and none of those reasons have anything to do with not valuing human life.
Anyway, in that NPR segment Cory Turner says that experts say that we should make schools “softer”—i.e., more welcoming and nurturing—not “harder” as in more secure. I think there’s a bit of a category error here. Making schools more nurturing and supportive is not in conflict with making them physically safer. I don’t know this, but I am pretty confident that there are some schools that are incredibly well-designed and heavily guarded that are also quite nurturing. If you see a family home with a state-of-the-art security system there’s no reason to assume it’s less loving and nurturing inside. My friend Charlie Cooke is armed to the teeth; he is also as far as I can tell a wonderful and nurturing dad.
Regardless, I just don’t believe that schools have become less tolerant since Columbine. I don’t think bullying has increased. If anything, I think the opposite is true. “Antibullyism,” Izzy Kalman writes at Psychology Today, “unofficially launched in response to the Columbine massacre of 1999, has become the most popular social movement in history.” Even you think—as I do—that that’s probably an overstatement, the point remains. Over the last two decades schools have leapt into the anti-bullying cause. I am sure there is less bullying in my high school today than there was when I attended.
So if these horrors are increasing, it is not obvious to me that doubling down on anti-bullying will suddenly reverse the trend. I think it’s at least plausible it could make things worse, at least if we maintain the current form of anti-bullying. I am not arguing in favor of bullying—I hate bullies— but as Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue in The Coddling of the American Mind, safetyism—the larger mindset and policy approach—doesn’t lead to kids feeling safer. Rather, it creates an environment where young people, at least many of them, are more likely to feel unsafe more easily. We see this all around us, as teen anxiety is through the roof.
In the last two decades, many institutions have rejected “sticks and stones may break my bones …” in favor of “words are violence.” And some people have gone even further, arguing in effect not only that speech can be violence, but that violence can be speech. In other words, maybe when we blur the lines between speech and violence we may—or may not—get less “violent” speech but we also get more violence as a substitute for speech? Again, not for everybody, but for people at the margins. Perhaps if any bullying remark is enough to make someone feel physically threatened, or even attacked, then resorting to actual violence may seem more justifiable. If speech is violence and violence is speech, by what logic is it illogical to respond to “violent” language with the language of physical violence?
Or maybe not. Or maybe it’s both true, and not true. Because when you’re dealing with 54 million kids in school what is best (or even inconsequential) for 99.999 percent of them is literally the worst thing you could do for .001 percent of them, and that .001 percent present a demonic problem in a country where they can easily get guns.
And, of course, we could do everything right with schools, red flag laws, etc., there’s still the obviously possibility that a person determined to murder large numbers of people will have the determination to work around those obstacles. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth making it harder for murderers to succeed, but maybe the real solution has little to do with putting bigger rocks in better places in the river. Maybe the problem is the river itself.
Evil is real.
The other day, a philosophy professor went on a very strange tear against me as a kind of David Hume manque. There’s no need to engage in all the claims I object to, but he made a criticism that has stuck with me. He complained that Hume’s conservatism is “not rooted in any eternal truths or metaphysical first principles. It is simply caution about change that might upset the apple cart paired with certain bourgeois sentiments and preferences. In a word, it has nothing to say about what is good.” He then seemed to suggest that I am guilty of doing something similar.
I think this is substantially off the mark for reasons not worth getting into here—or maybe at all—but it does provide a good opportunity to once again make the case that evil exists. Because even if it were true that I have “nothing to say about what is good,” I think there’s something worth saying about evil, starting with the fact it exists. And without a concept of evil, it is very difficult to make the case for the good.
Modern societies have a real problem with the concept of evil. We’re obsessed with “root cause” explanations for “anti-social” behavior. “Moralistic” language—at least moralistic language we don’t like—is silly or reactionary. Monsters aren’t real, they’re simply misunderstood.
More importantly, I think evil ideas are real. So even if you want to treat the lyrics of “Gee, Officer Krupke” as dispositive psychological doctrine, evil ideas can help to create evil people. We live in a society where we confuse explanations for excuses. Everyday some “realist” explains to me why Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is “understandable” as if that makes it any less evil.
It’s a strange paradox. When everything is permitted, when everyone has a “reason” to do something, we act as if that lessens their responsibility for their actions, when it should mean the opposite. The sociological obsession with root causes saps the importance of agency. Monsters become nothing more than “products of their environments” and hence victims, too. We have a twisted and deformed view that monstrous acts are justified if the monster’s feelings of victimization are justified or simply “understandable.” Powerlessness is an excuse to lash out at the powerful. You can give me a great explanation for why someone feels it necessary to murder children or eat people or whatever. You can explain the feelings of murderers, rioters, rapists, child abusers, all day long. I might even buy your explanation. But it doesn’t change the fact that the person who did monstrous things is a monster and should be regarded as such. His feelings are immaterial.
I loved Andrew Delbanco’s The Death of Satan, in which he argued that we as a culture lost something valuable when we lost faith in the existence of Satan. And even though the Jewish version of Satan is different from the Christian version, I think he was entirely right. Having a serious conception of evil and the temptations of evil that Satan manifests is an important part of understanding the good.
Perhaps to the professor’s dismay, I’m not going to wade into theology or metaphysics here, but stay in my largely neoconservative (rightly understood) lane. It may be entirely or largely true that mental health is the right prism to look through for solutions to this demonic problem. But having an appreciation for what is evil would probably make the job of mental health professionals easier, at least in some regards. The problem with the purely secular or humanist approach to morality is that it not only doesn’t speak to our souls in the cases that matter most, it doesn’t give us something concrete to build on. Moral dogma is the foundation upon which all conceptions of right and wrong are built. Reasonable people can disagree on the best conception of the good, but reasonable people should be able to agree on at least some things that are evil without recourse to much explanation. Murdering children is evil because it is. If you have to explain that, you’ve already lost an important part of the battle.
Of course, Satan’s demise hasn’t turned everyone into nihilists who think everything is permitted if it “feels” right. But in a society where indecent fame is a greater currency than decent anonymity it shouldn’t surprise us that many people do indecent things for attention and a deformed kind of respect, and a tiny minority do abjectly evil things for the same reason.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: Not much to report, alas. The most vexatious thing these days, other than the Dingo’s stygian breath, is the Dingo’s otherworldly shedding, if not outright molting. We now have enough extra Zoë fur to make a second Dingo. We don’t think she’s sick or anything. It seems just to be her adjustment to warmer weather. Pippa, meanwhile, is just giddy about the return of The Fair Jessica. Though she is working on some new poses for her fans. So is Zoë for that matter. The foxes are still around but causing less trouble. We suspect they’re becoming empty-nesters.
And now, the weird stuff