Who or what is responsible for evil?

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In the aftermath of a tragedy, like the recent Colorado and Wisconsin events, we look to place the blame for the event somewhere. In the last few years there has been an increase in the number of disturbing violent events. Questions get asked about how this person got weapons if they were known to be troubled. How did their mental health problems go unrecognized? Did they have a brain injury or a neurological disease? Why didn’t the doctor do something? We look at the parents and ask if they saw this in their child and why didn’t they do something if they did? What about the school administrators, why didn’t they act? Or, we hear that the person was on a watch list because of their activities, but the watch list didn’t set off any warning bells. And, why would we need to sell a magazine for a civilian weapon that allows it to fire 100 bullets? Ultimately, we ask these unanswerable questions to try to understand who or what is responsible for an unimaginable evil.

The answer is never easy to find the reason and often there is no one answers. We continue to ask what motivated the kids who killed their classmates at Columbine. Or, what tipped the balance for the shooter in Aurora? Or, what sent the Sikh temple killer off on a rampage? Or, what form of mental illness caused the shooting in Tucson when Gabrielle Giffords was shot, others wounded and some killed? And, what happened in peaceful Norway when the shooter was able to carry on his violence for one and half hours until the police could get there? What about Virginia Tech, couldn’t people read the warning signs? And, then we have Sergeant Bales in Afghanistan, what caused this soldier to kill innocent townspeople?

The fact is that we will never know what actually caused the violence to erupt. We will guess at the possible causes and the psychiatric factors will be discussed. We will ask why the person’s problems went undetected and why did it take an event that was this horrific to gain our attention that the person needed help? Behind all of these questions we are looking for who is responsible for evil?

I worked as the Director of a Psychiatric Clinic attached to the courts in a New England state for several years back in the mid-1970’s. While I never had the responsibility of trying to sort out the events of a wide scale tragedy, I did routinely evaluate individuals who were charged with serious crimes, like murder or rape and was asked specific questions by the court about the person’s competency to stand trial, criminal responsibility and dangerousness. The questions I answered for the court could never satisfy my own wondering of what caused this person to commit the act that they were charged with. In situations where the killer didn’t know his victims personally, what within that person could cause them to become so dangerously violent that their behavior would result in the death and injury of one or many individuals?

Maybe there’s not really an answer about what causes a person to commit a heinous act like shooting innocent people who they probably don’t even know. As mental health professionals we will attempt to sort out an understanding of the event in the language of mental illness and psychopathology. The question we cannot answer for ourselves is the question we cannot answer for anybody else.   Who or what is responsible for evil?

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