Commentary Magazine


Is Loughner Insane or Evil?

Over at Politico, Roger Simon has written a thought-provoking column about the descriptions of Jared Loughner in the media. News outlets have rushed to label Loughner as “insane” — but whatever happened to “evil”?

From Politico:

We know that anybody who guns down innocent people or sticks dead bodies under his house or eats them has got to be crazy, for pity’s sake.

And we believe that because we do not want to believe, as our ancestors believed, in evil. Evil is even more frightening than madness. Madness can be treated. All we need is early intervention and clinics and more resources devoted to the problem.

Simon argues that evil has “been medicalized into insanity. But only up to a certain point. There seems to be a correlation between the number of people you kill and whether you are called insane or evil.”

Loughner allegedly kills six and is insane.

Adolf Hitler kills more than 6 million, and he is evil. The same is true for Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung. We don’t say they needed the intervention of community health clinics; we say they were the ultimate examples of evil on Earth because they murdered tens of millions of people.

Is the difference just numbers, however? You kill a certain number of people and you are nuts, but you cross the line and kill more and you are evil? Is that how it really works?

Or, in our modern times, are we embarrassed by the term “evil”? To some, it seems too primitive or too religious or both.

And we would much rather believe that all sick people can be cured by medical intervention.

Because that is a lot less scary than believing that evil walks among us.

I agree that there is a cultural squeamishness about using the term “evil.” Society has become infused with a notion of moral relativity, and “evil” is a moralistic word with religious connotations that seem archaic.

The concept of evil is most distasteful to the political left. President George W. Bush was excoriated for using the phrase “axis of evil” and framing the global war on terror as a fight between good and evil. President Obama has notably shied away from using that type of rhetoric to describe our enemies.

Obviously there are people whose minds are so deranged that they commit heinous acts without realizing they are doing something wrong (think Norman Bates’s character in the movie Psycho). But there is a difference between Bates and a murderer like Ted Bundy, who understood that his actions were unconscionable and tried to cover them up. Bundy may have been crazy, but he was also evil — it’s definitely possible to be both, and the two are often found together.

The question of whether Loughner is insane or evil will be decided in a court of law. But, as Simon notes, it’s interesting that many media outlets have already made up their mind.