I sit down to write this reflection on April 17, 2007, the day after the deadliest
school shooting in American history. The initial inspiration for what I write here, however, is something much less heinous and now several years old.
When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out, it generated a lot of conflict and debate for various reasons. For some it was anti-semitic, or poorly researched, a propaganda piece etc… But, in the midst of all this criticism, one in particular stood out to me: The antipathy of many people toward the way Gibson’s film portrayed Pontius Pilate. Some even argued that Gibson made Pilate into a hero. At first I found this criticism startling and wondered if somehow these people had seen a different version of the film than I had. It turns out it was just a different take on anthropology.
You see, while I saw in Pilate a weak and indecisive man who refused to take responsibility for his decisions, others were observing what they perceived to be a consummate politician doing what a politician should–his actions were even praise worthy. The root, it seemed, of people’s problems with Gibson’s portrayal of Pilate was not so much that he was portrayed in such a way as to make him look “good,” but rather, that he seems so like our own politicians. The problem with Pilate is that he is us, and the only portrayal that would have been sufficient would have been the one that made Pilate into a monster so grotesque that we could never see ourselves in his place.
John O’Sullivan addressed the issue of how people were responding to the portrayal of Pilate in the National Review. The core of his argument is what follows:
…there is also a less admirable reason why the modern world finds Pilate sympathetic. He is the patron saint of doubt and thus attractive to an age that regards doubt itself as a virtue — or at least as a mark of sophistication in the face of certainties with which we happen to disagree, whether they are the certainties of the religious right, or of fundamentalist Moslems, or of political ideologies. Many intellectuals, academics and (generally liberal) politicians have come to see doubt in these modestly heroic terms.
I think that O’Sullivan is certainly on to something, but I’m not sure it’s really the primary thing. I believe that many people were, on the deepest level, made uncomfortable with how easily the actions of a villain sit in the conscience. But rather than question the state of their conscience, they question the presentation of the villain. Surely Pilate must be heinously evil, and yet I can understand his actions, and I may even find them sympathetic–such a portrayal, especially in film, makes us uncomfortable and brings us face to face with our own duplicitous and sinful natures. As Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem (and much of the rest of her work) demonstrates, and contrary to way it is often portrayed in our movies and media, evil is not strictly alien or thrust upon us by some hideous outside force. Instead, evil is more often than not, banal and very clearly a part of us as human beings, a sick malfunction fueled by sin.
So what does all of this have to do with the VA Tech shooting? As Anna and I watched the news right after this tragedy occurred, we couldn’t help but talk about the words journalists were using to describe Cho Seung Hui, the man who perpetrated the killings. False emotion has always irritated me, and there was certainly plenty of that on display from some commentators. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about the people who were impacted by this, who were connected with the victims and their families, but rather commentators on national TV who could barely contain their falsified rage and seemed intent on completely dehumanizing the murderer through their use of language. Evil was used a lot–and this shooting was undeniably that–but that wasn’t the only term thrown about. Monster was another one we heard a lot, as was sick–but monster sticks in my mind. As I watched the news come out, and the commentary become more detailed, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t only watching the news about the aftermath of the actions of a very sick and indeed a very evil human being, but also the process of a society hardening itself against any intimation that each and every one of us is, in our heart of hearts, capable of doing something heinously evil.
As Arendt brings to light, Eichmann and most other Nazis were “ordinary men” before the rise of the Third Reich… Eichmann, for instance was a vacuum cleaner salesman. And yet, people want to create a mythology of monstrosity, put people who do horrible things in a separate category from “us,” not to punish them, but to soothe our consciences, and to help us continue to live the lie that “people are basically good.”
I realize that there are those who dislike Arendt’s characterization of evil as banal, just as many dislike Augustine’s understanding of it as a privation of the good. But in my limited experience, this is the only understanding of evil, and of humanity, that allows us to both judge evil in others and guard for it in ourselves. To do otherwise, and to accept the easy cultural assumption that anyone who does an evil thing must not be “like us” is really to do the same thing Pilate did, to wash our hands of all responsibility… if we attempt this, we may find that we’re only washing our hands in blood.