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Murderers, Evil & the Absence of Empathy

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Like so many people this week I was stunned, shocked and sickened by the execution style murders of Roanoke Virginia reporters Allison Parker and Adam Ward by former reporter Vester Flanagan. Then later in the week the same type of murder of Houston Deputy Sheriff Darren Goforth by a man named Shannon Miles. The first was particularly upsetting as a local news station had a story on it early in the day with a video, which I thought was their coverage, but instead it was the live video which had been broadcast at the moment of the shooting. Then I saw the pictures published by the New York Daily News taken by Flanagan as he shot Allison Parker. Those pictures which showed Flanagan’s view down his gun sight as he aimed, fired and aimed again were chilling. They are so troubling that I will not post them here.

I think it was so because I have been on the other side of the gun barrel. Back in 1979, when I was first starting to date Judy we were out with her parents and help up at gunpoint. I had a .38 caliber revolver to my head, the criminals took our wallets, the women’s purses and as they left the one on the other side of the car ripped Judy’s glasses off of her face and ground them into the pavement. I thought about trying to get the gun from the man on my side of the car but realized that if I failed fired that Judy or her parents might have been killed. If I had my own gun, which I did not I would have probably not been able to get a shot off without getting them killed. Likewise, on a number of occasions in Iraq, serving as an unarmed chaplain, I was under enemy small arms or rocket fire. Thus when I think about what happened to the victims there is a certain amount of kinship I feel.

They reminded me of a picture that I saw of a member of a Nazi Einsatzgruppe individually killing women who had survived a mass execution in Russia during the German invasion. In one picture a woman, appears to be trying to rise up to crawl away from the piles of bodies, and a tall SS man walking up a few feet away with a sub-machinegun aimed at her.

I wondered how people of any sort could be so cold as to look someone in the eye and commit such brutal crimes. It was horrifying. I was up that night thinking about so many others that have happened in this country in just past few years. Dylann Storm Roof going to a Bible Study at the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church and then murdering the people there because they were African-American and he was a White Supremacist. There was Frazier Glenn Cross, a former KKK leader and militant white supremacist that killed three people near a Jewish Community center in Overland Park Kansas on the Eve of Passover, 2014. He claimed, “I had no criminal intent, I had a patriotic intent to stop genocide against my people,” and “I hate Jews…. They are the ones who destroy us.”

Then there was Neo-Nazi Wade Page who walked into a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek Wisconsin and killed six people in cold blood. There was James Holmes who went into a crowded theater in Aurora Colorado and killed twelve and wounded fifty-eight more in a mass killing spree. Holmes was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Of course there was the Boston Marathon Bombing, and other killings committed by the Tsarnaev brothers, and twenty-year-old Adam Lanza who murdered twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut. Then there is George Zimmerman, a man in a league of his own, who killed an unarmed black teenager  and got away with it, much like so many murderers of so many others, not just in this country, but others as well.

Of course this is nothing new, we can look back that the 9-11 hijackers who killed almost 3000 people; Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols who killed 168 and wounded hundreds more when they bombed the Murrah Federal Building; as well as the terrorists of ISIL who routinely look into the eyes of their victims and then kill them.

The list can go on and on, and the murderers span the spectrum of American. Native born and immigrants, whites, blacks, Latin Americans, Asians, well educated men such as Holmes, children of privilege, Christians, Moslems, Jews, various other religions as well as atheists and agnostics. Some seemed to be motivated by some kind of intense hatred, religion, ideology, race; others apparently with some kind of mental imbalance or sense that they, or their race were the victims of the people that they killed.

Whether people murder others in cold blood, be it in large numbers or by looking them in the eye and pulling the trigger, no matter what their motivation for doing so, there is a common factor. It is not the weapons, though I do think the easy availability of so many lethal weapons is a factor, and that we need to tighten the requirements and even limit the types of weapons and amount of ammunition one can legally have, there were over 11,000 gun related homicides in the United States in 2014, I have left out suicides, which were close to 20,000 and justified defense using a gun which are so few that they don’t hit the chart. That number for one year dwarfs the number of all Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I digress…. I am not against people owning guns, I will probably get myself a carbine for marksmanship practice someday, preferably a bolt action World War II Mauser if I can find one in good shape, but again I digress…. The easy access to guns too, is just a part of the equation.

It is not religion, ideology, or political differences, while that certainly plays a part, they are just contributing factors; the same is true of mental illness.

But there is something else, something that an American Army psychologist assigned to the major war criminals noted at the Nuremburg trials: “In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.” 

If you look at the video evidence provided by the killers, their writings, their Internet postings, or the testimony that any of them who survived long enough to go to trial; there is one thing that comes through loud and clear. None of them, not a one have any empathy for their fellow human beings, and as such when they look the people that they are about to kill in the eye do not feel anything.

It does not matter if they are men who perpetrated genocide or killed, or enslaved hundreds of thousands or even millions of people in the name of their religion, ideology, or political-economic systems; or if they are mass murderers or terrorists not connected with a state; who kill in the name of God, race, or ideology; or simply those who hate others and kill to avenge a real or perceived wrong against them. or even those who can look their victim in the eye and then murder them, they all lack the ability to feel for their victims.

The lack empathy, the totality of narcissism, the inability to see others as valued human beings; that it the definition of evil; and there is so much of it in our world. When I saw those pictures that the New York Daily News posted I was reminded of that; and I have had a hard time sleeping since.

I realize all too well that Gustave Gilbert was right; evil is the absence of empathy. The fact is that almost anything else is solvable, but the absence of empathy is the one characteristic that cannot be solved by humanity, and it may be the instrument of our demise as a species.

I say that because there are men and women who would not hesitate to unleash the hell of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons of mass destruction on their enemies and the world. Despite their differences of their belief systems, religion or ideology, these people all display a certain absence of empathy; and that my friends makes them dangerous. Those who can look a single person, or a number of people in the eye and kill them are no different than those who have the ability, or desire the ability to kill millions; for none of them truly believe that their victims are worthy of life. Life unworthy of life, that is how the Nazis referred to their victims, and how those without empathy see their victims.

I’m hoping that his will not be the case and I’m hoping that I will be able to sleep,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under crime, History, Political Commentary, terrorism

A Cry in Newtown: Anguish after a Massacre

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“A cry was heard in Ramah–weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead.” Matthew 2:18

It came suddenly and terribly as at 9:30 AM on Friday the 14th of December a 20 year old Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton Connecticut. It was unexpected. The town is considered one of the safest if not the safest cities in the country and in it people, like people across the country were preparing to celebrate Christmas or the last two days of Chanukah. It is a festive time when people, especially children should feel safe, but on this day the people of Newtown and many in the United States discovered the fragility of life and reality of evil walking in the midst of them.

While the investigation is still ongoing it appears that he killed his mother at their home and then went to the school where according to initial reports had at one time either worked or volunteered. New reports indicate that she was not associated with the school. Clad in black and wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying  multiple weapons. Lanza used a .223 caliber Bushmaster semi-automatic carbine, the civilian version of the M-4 carbine used by the military, and had two semi-automatic pistols and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, Lanza entered the school, and opened fire in the office. Bt the time he was done he had killed 20 children and 6 adults before killing himself. We know almost nothing about him, his older brother 24 year old Ryan Lanza of Hoboken New Jersey was initially identified as the killer as Adam was carrying his identification. According to some reports Ryan told police that his brother had a history of mental illness. His parents had divorced in 2009 and people that knew the family described Adam as “troubled” and his mother “rigid.” Some reports on Saturday say that Nancy Lanza was a gun enthusiast who took her sons shooting.

When the news came this morning and the full terrible extent of the massacre became known I was stunned.  It was like being kicked in the stomach. Like most people I cannot fathom the absolute evil, or madness that brings a young man to kill people, but even more specifically young children in such a brutal manner.  Reports from one of the medical examiners conducting the autopsies indicated that each of the children were shot 5-7 times each. I have seen the results of such violence. I have seen the bodies of children who have been killed or maimed by bullets fired by violent people. I have been with the mothers and fathers of these children, in the Emergency Rooms and ICUs of major medical centers as well as in Iraq. To see the mutilated bodies of the children and the grief of the families in that moment of loss where no words can take away the grief is something that I live with as a Priest and Chaplain.

As the news continued I thought of my brother and sister in law. He is a school administrator and she a elementary school teacher in Stockton California, one of the most dangerous cities in the country. My mother had spent nearly two decades as a teacher’s aide in another elementary school in the same city, while my wife’s first job in college was as an aide with deaf children there. As I thought of them I thought of another school shooting. This one in Stockton in 1989. It occurred on a school playground where a young man named Patrick Edward Purdy took an automatic rifle and killed 5 children and wounded 30 more on the same school playground were I played. My brother and I had both attended that school, Cleveland Elementary School and it was the same school that my wife held her first job. So for me the news brought waves of emotion and concern, as it did for most people. It is a terrible event.

Unfortunately there is little that most of us can do now other than to pray for the victims and if we are in a place to do so be there to care for the families and friends directly affected by this tragedy.

There were pundits, preachers and politicians across the political spectrum today advocating their specific agendas either for or against gun control, as well as throwing God and school prayer into the debate. Somehow it seems to me that those that mourn deserve better than such immediate outbursts of even well meaning partisan vitriol. There is a time for debate and action. However, I wish that people would have the good sense to give the survivors a chance to mourn and everyone a chance to absorb the magnitude of today’s tragedy.

Tonight the people of Newtown and surrounding communities gathered in churches and synagogues to mourn, to pray and to grieve, to seek comfort in God and as individuals and as a community. There will be much more of that to do in the coming days, weeks and months, but for many tonight there will be no comfort, for like the figure of Rachel comfort, at least for now is not possible, for their children are dead.

I think that the scripture quoted by President Obama is the most fitting to end with. It is time to comfort those that mourn and bind up their wounds.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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