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A gunman bursts into the gymnasium of a small Scottish grade school. He begins firing, systematically hunting down nearly every child in the room. Before he finishes and ends his own life with a blast to the brain, 16 "wee ones" and their teacher lay dead in a huge, spreading pool of blood.
It is an act of unmitigated evil. Or is it? Apparently it depends on whose newspapers you read.
I happened to be in Ireland at the time of the shooting, exposed to the coverage of the Irish and British press. Every article I read, it seems, used the terms "monster," "pervert" and "evil" to describe the slayer, Thomas Hamilton. There were some examples of this in the American media, as well. Time magazine’s article included the words "a monster goes on the rampage" and Time essayist Lance Morrow focused on the element of evil.
But far more typical was this Associated Press line: "A 43-year-old loner with an unsavory reputation massacred more than half of Dunblane Primary School’s kindergarten class and its teacher on Wednesday, then shot himself dead." Indeed, "loner" was the American media’s chief description of Hamilton. That’s like summarizing George Washington as a man with a powdered wig or Abraham Lincoln as merely tall.
As to his "unsavory reputation," what the paper means is that he papered his walls with photos of little boys in various states of undress. It means he was kicked out of the Boy Scouts for having little boys disrobe in front of him. The kids called him "Mr. Creepie." How do you get from this that he merely had an "unsavory reputation"?
The British media pulled no punches. "Residents Say Scottish Killer Was Evil Pervert," ran the headline of the Reuter news service story out of Scotland. "What has happened reminds us of the depths to which human evil can sink," concluded the London Evening Standard. The London Daily Mirror referred to "evil Thomas Hamilton."
Why have the American media been so reticent about calling this man what he is?
"At the foundation of all this is the Left’s rejection of religion and fundamental to that is the question of whether human beings are capable of evil or not," says Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, and a Seattle radio talk-show host. "The whole of Western thought has always been based on the idea that there is evil of which people are [inherently] capable ... "
The Left, he says, argues that since "no human beings are capable of doing wrong things, evil must come from the institutions of society," usually but not always the church.
Certaintly, had this happened in the United States, the media would have done what they’ve always done with shootings: blamed the institution of lax gun laws. But because it happened in a nation with some of the strictest gun laws, they were left foundering.
Yet, the American media seem to have trouble believing even some institutions can be evil. These, after all, are the same people who to this day snort, chuckle, and guffaw when they refer to President Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." As if there could possibly be a better term for a state that murdered tens of millions of people, kept hundreds of millions of others in bondage, and kept a nuclear arsenal trained on those whom it couldn’t subjugate. The British media, by contrast, treated and continues to treat Mr. Reagan’s words with deference.
Robert Royal, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in D.C., attributes the media’s reticence to our having "made ourselves into such a therapeutic society that we don’t like to think people have choices in right or wrong. If something goes wrong it’s a sort of chemical malfunction, [and] people are not responsible for what they do."
Or a psychological malfunction, says the Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich. The media "have to characterize in psychological terms, not moral ones. Evil is just something we don’t understand," he says. He adds, "Morality is grounded in human free will," something else the media doesn’t accept. "If it turns out a child abuser was abused by his father, it exonerates him," he says. "Since the media doesn’t accept free will, it can’t accept good or evil."
It’s "a very sophisticated amoral logic," he says. But unlike true logic, it is ultimately incapable of explaining anything.
This is what happens if you remove the concepts of good and evil. Without the context of the Civil War and slavery, Abraham Lincoln truly was only a president who happened to be tall; without the Revolutionary War and the Continental Congress and its aftermath, George Washington was just a president with a wig.
Call Thomas Hamilton anything you want — 43 years old, a loner, fat, bald, bespectacled. But if you don’t call him evil, you’re omitting what set him apart from the world’s other 5 billion people that day. As Time’s Lance Morrow put it in the title of his essay, "Only the Vocabulary of Evil Could Explain What Happened at Dunblane."