Tragedy? Or Wickedness?

Published May 2, 2007

At Mass on the morning of April 17, hours after a shooting spree at Virginia Tech had left dozens dead (including the shooter), the homilist spoke of the “tragedy” that had unfolded in Blacksburg the day before. I had no sooner gotten home from church and checked the e-mail than I found a communication from the Parent and Family Affairs Office at the University of Maryland (where my son is a student) deploring the “tragic incident that transpired at Virginia Tech” and listing “resources available to the UM community during this time of immense tragedy.” But what, I wondered, was the “tragedy” here?

Terminal cancer in a five-year-old is “tragic.” Macbeth is a “tragedy,” in that the subject’s flaws are ultimately the cause of the unraveling of his life. What happened at Virginia Tech, however, was not a “tragedy.” It was a manifestation of what theologians once called the mysterium iniquitatis, the “mystery of evil.” The murders in Blacksburg were acts of wickedness, not the “tragic” unfolding of an unavoidable fate.

These things have to be called by their real names. As do suicide-homicide bombings in the Middle East. As do the acts of terrorists who plant IEDs along Iraq’s roadsides in order to maim young Americans. Evil is real, and evil can take hold of minds and souls. How can any serious Christian look at the evil at work in Blacksburg and not be reminded of the warning we read every Tuesday night in Compline: “Stay sober and alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour…” (1 Peter 5:8-9a)? Like original sin, the reality of the Evil One is one of the doctrines of the faith for which there is ample empirical evidence.

The instinctive reach for the language of “tragedy” in the wake of a slaughter like Blacksburg — an instinct evident at Boston College and Catholic University as well as at state schools like Maryland — further confirms that the late Philip Rieff was spot-on when he described ours as a “therapeutic society.” The language of psychology has displaced the language of theology, as psychological categories of understanding have displaced theological explanations for what seems otherwise inexplicable. On the day after the Virginia Tech shootings, when little was known (or at least reported) about the shooter, the Washington Post nonetheless assured its readers that “deep frustration” was the likely cause of thirty-two murders. Spree-killers, a researcher told the Post, are “very, very frustrated people who are so self-centered they feel the whole world is against them…”

“Frustrated,” “self-centered,” and “feel” are words and expressions redolent of the therapeutic society. A different vocabulary is required here. Hell has sometimes been explained as the condition in which one is so utterly self-centered that, incapable of relationships or love, one’s personality disintegrates into oblivion. “Hellish,” in this very specific sense, strikes me as a better adjective with which to describe the Blacksburg shooter than “frustrated.” “Frustration” is a description of a psychological state. “Hellish” (or “wicked”) is the far more accurate description of the moral condition — the state of soul — of someone who can shoot thirty-two innocent people in cold blood.

Police departments are neither theology departments nor confessionals, and astute psychological profiling of potential spree-killers obviously has its place. My point is a broader, cultural one: that the vocabulary of the therapeutic society is a distraction from the real meaning of situations like the Virginia Tech shootings, which engages the most profound questions of good and evil. The vocabulary of “tragedy,” like the therapeutic vocabulary that is its first cousin, can also lead to an abrogation of responsibility: when your number’s up, your number’s up, so why live responsibly here and now?

No one wants a repetition of those “witchcraft” hysterias in which innocents were unjustly executed on spurious grounds of being demonically possessed. Unless we recover the vocabulary of good and evil, however, we will really not come to grips with what possesses a Hitler, a Stalin, a Pol Pot, a Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — or a spree-killer on a Virginia campus.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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