“It was an act of pure evil.” With these words, Pres. Donald Trump described Sunday’s attack in Las Vegas. Nobody can disagree. There is no nuanced explanation for this murderous act. It is repulsive even to suggest that Stephen Paddock had good intentions for what he did.
Labeling it as “pure evil” needs no explanation, but it does merit comment. We are awash in excuses and explanations that make good and evil into matters of personal preference. Amid such moral relativism, these words crackle with clarity.
Las Vegas has blown away the smokescreen. We are utterly united that the murder of 58 people and the wounding 527 others is evil. Even to ask the question, “why?” sounds surreal and out of place. But we must ask it.
Part of the climate of relativism is that we make moral judgments with our guts and feelings and leave our minds out of the picture. But feelings and moods can change with the wind.
Consider how often in history horrific evils have come to be accepted as mainstream. Be it genocide or slavery, feelings can always change. But clear, reason-based judgments remain true no matter how much our feelings become conditioned to evil.
So, while we have a moment of unity in our feelings of disgust and judgment upon the murderer, let’s engage our minds to make that common ground last.
What makes the Las Vegas massacre evil is the killing of human beings. We would not be having this national conversation if Stephen Paddock had sprayed death into a nest of hornets. Even if he had poached 58 deer, it would be a weird curiosity, but not a national tragedy. We are in shock and horror because he killed 58 human beings.
Human life is more precious than any other life. Yet Stephen Paddock hated it with a passion. Months of thought and research, thousands of dollars and weeks of preparation were focused not on destruction in general — not even on the destruction of life in general, but on the destruction of human life.
Moreover, it wasn’t just “others” he hated. He seemed to hate his own life just as much as his victims. It could not have been personal animosity toward his victims; something else drove him to kill. Could it be purely that they were human beings like himself?
Wayne Newton, Mr. Las Vegas, said in an interview last week, “I think that in his own mind, by committing suicide he might have escaped earth justice, and the justice of the people.” Whether self-inflicted suicide, or suicide by cop, it’s a good bet that Paddock believed a bullet in the brain would exempt him from any consequences of his evil actions.
Hindus believe in a Karma that carries on after death. Jews, Muslims, Christians and others believe that a final judgment will determine your eternal status. Paddock was betting the house that everyone is wrong.
Whatever was on his mind, right now, unseen by us, he is learning whether he held a royal flush, or was merely bluffing. Wayne Newton spoke for most when he said, “I know there’s a seat waiting for him in hell. So, he’ll suffer a long time.”
Verily, Stephen Paddock’s eternal fate hangs on the question of whether human beings have an eternal existence, or merely die like animals. But the fate of those 58 murdered and 527 wounded hung on the question of what Paddock believed about eternity. That is simply the fact of the matter.
Imagine a group of 59 people (in this case, 58 victims and the alleged shooter) all tied together along a rope, and walking around near a cliff edge. What happens if one of them steps off the cliff will happen regardless of what he believes. Gravity will do its work whether he believes in it or not. But the entire group will be adversely affected by one person who doesn’t believe in gravity.
Your own fate is a reality that you cannot change. But what you do to those around you depends entirely on what you believe about that reality. That’s what happened in Las Vegas. It was an extreme example, to be sure. But it clearly demonstrates the relationship between any person’s view of ultimate reality and the fate of those around him.
On account of this, no amount of laws in the world can infallibly protect the rest of humanity from a single human being who holds antihuman views. Once a human mind becomes “weaponized,” no one is safe.
Human beings are by nature free to follow their beliefs. We have the capacity to think, to invent, to create, and to use the resources around us for incredibly great good. But with that freedom and ability comes an equal ability to do incredibly great evil.
The two come as a matched pair, and they can’t be uncoupled. You cannot keep a man from doing evil without affecting his ability to do good. Put a robber in jail, and he no longer can work to serve you. Shackles intended to limit people’s capacity to do evil will in equal proportion limit people’s capacity to do good.
In addition to this consideration, we also need to think about what kind of shackles are effective for what kind of people. If someone’s aim is to get money, we can limit his ability to do evil by fining him. If his aim is physical freedom, we can restrict him by the threat of jail. But what if his ultimate goal is death? For such a person laws, fines, punishment, and incarceration have no power whatsoever. That was the case of Stephen Paddock.
How many more are there like him? More to the point, are we, as a society weaponizing other minds? By teaching people to believe that human life is nothing but a vapor, with no value and no meaning, we contribute to our own demise. All the security agencies in the world cannot guarantee to protect us from someone acting on that belief.
It is time for us to remember this reality. Societies are not made safe and secure by abandoning any communal search for eternal truth while forever ratcheting up restrictions on individual freedom. The safest and most peaceful societies foster a common respect and love for human life while leaving as much freedom as possible for human ingenuity and energy to act on that love.
Is human life meaningless or not? There is no avoiding this question. To say, “I don’t know,” is to say, “it means so little to me that I can’t even take a stand.” It is an attitude which contributes to the making of ever more Stephen Paddocks. It is an act of pure evil, and it’s time we stopped pretending otherwise.
Jonathan Lange has a heart for our state and community. Locally, he has raised his family and served as pastor of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Evanston and St. Paul’s in Kemmerer for two decades. Statewide, he leads the Wyoming Pastors Network in advocating for the traditional church in the public square.