The inevitable question: why?

  • April 27, 2007
Almost exactly seven years ago, in April 2000, I was sent by the newspaper I worked for to Columbine, Colorado, to report on the first anniversary of the high-school shooting rampage that left 12 students and a teacher dead and 23 people injured. It was a harrowing assignment. I found the citizens of this affluent Denver suburb of high earners and hard workers still in shock, battering themselves and each other with the inevitable question: Why?
In recent weeks, people in the  United States and around the world have been asking the same question about the terrible April massacre at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. Why did  Cho Seung-hui do it?

The explanations served up by secular society for both the Columbine killings and the Virginia murders don’t make sense to me.

Violent video games and the hate-filled lyrics of rap music? As repulsive as these entertainments are, millions and millions of kids enjoy them, but don’t become killers.

Ostracism by the jocks and the in-crowd at school? This is certainly one thing that Cho and Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had in common. But it’s something that they shared with many other young people who don’t gun anyone down.

Mental illness? Cho clearly behaved in ways that alarmed teachers and counsellors. But in the months leading up to the bloodshed, Cho showed none of the characteristic signs of serious mental disease, such as debilitating confusion or incoherence. In fact, he went about preparing to kill his classmates with complete clarity and methodical care. That’s something else he shared with Klebold and Harris: a talent for plotting every move in a scheme of destruction and carrying it out with fine deliberation.

Perhaps there is no explanation for what happened at Columbine and Blacksburg. But I wonder if one can ever be found, without factoring into the violent equation one thing that never figures in worldly opinions: the reality of evil.

Christians know about the spiritual reality of evil — the insidious and pervasive character of it, its powers of seduction. We know we have the ability to bind ourselves over to evil. We also know that we live in a universe full of God’s grace, continually shielding us from falling into sin — but that even grace cannot prevent us from freely surrendering to evil, if that’s what we are determined to do.

In Cho, Klebold and Harris, we meet very determined young men. It’s little wonder that nobody really saw the bitter end coming, simply because most of us are unaccustomed to the absolute calm, the infinite loathing and self-loathing, the utter absence of compassion of people who have given themselves to evil. People who live in more temperate spiritual latitudes may glimpse the intense spiritual horror that evil people live with — in Cho’s videos and writings, in the web sites of Klebold and Harris — though by the time they do, it’s usually too late. The evil has run its course and ended, as it always tends to end, in murder and suicide.

But from the records that come to light after the massacres, it’s possible to learn something about the intoxicating character of evil. By the end of their brief lives, the Columbine and Blacksburg killers were dwelling almost entirely on a spiritual plane beyond ordinary moral imagination. And they displayed certain traits common among those who have taken leave of the world of grace and freely given themselves to evil: great lucidity, and complete fearlessness in the face of death. They know what they want to do and why. It pleases them to inflict death and destruction. Their final testaments usually say so. We are foolish not to believe them, if only because their explanation explains everything.

That said, I am not recommending that Christians spend much time contemplating the character of evil. Doing so is not conducive to virtue or holiness of living — the things, that is, we should be busy with. But occasionally, the fancy colours and everyday allures of sin fall away for a moment, and we catch sight of the horrifying reality that lies beyond. It’s a good thing to be able to recognize evil when we see it face to face.

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