On March 24, 1998, Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden opened fire at the Westside Middle School near Jonesboro, Arkansas. Four students and one teacher were killed and many others wounded. Occurring a year before the infamous school massacre in Columbine, Colorado, the Arkansas shooting was big news — not only because mass shootings were relatively rare in those days, but because of the age of the shooters: Johnson was 13 and Golden was 11.
Dr. Jonathan Kellerman was so bothered by what happened that he couldn’t sleep. Already a successful novelist, he put the novel he was working on to the side and began to research a simple question: How could children do such a thing? Kellerman was more than qualified to research the subject: He received his PhD in Psychology from USC in 1974, eventually becoming staff psychologist at the USC School of Medicine and later full clinical professor of pediatrics. His doctorate focused on assigning blame for childhood psychopathology. As he describes:
“… I’d been trained as a child clinical psychologist, worked for two decades at a major urban hospital and as a private practitioner, had witnessed plenty of psychopathology firsthand. But … my education and experience seemed pathetically inadequate. I struggled to make sense of the rampage…”
That very night, he began researching and writing what was eventually called Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children. It was noticed, both for its author (a famous novelist) and its main takeaway: Kellerman concluded that when one analyzes the research, nurture alone cannot explain the violent tendencies of all young offenders. Most mass shooters were abused and/or neglected, but not all. His claim: Some people are simply born evil. The idea is alarming: if nurture explains violence, then we can do something about it. We can rebuild broken families, we can improve schooling, we can tackle abuse and bullying, and we can offer counseling and role modeling. However, if the problem is nature – meaning certain people are born psychopathic (lacking feelings of mercy) – there is literally nothing society can do to “fix” them. As he put it, the only solution is to “lock them up till they die”.
The idea also has a parallel in international issues. One of then-president Ronald Reagan’s most famous speeches included these important words:
I urge you to beware the temptation … to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
The phrase “evil empire” went viral (as viral as things could go in 1983), and Reagan was criticized for using it. Can’t we all just get along? Isn’t dialogue the solution? In this “optimistic view” of human nature, evil doesn’t really exist — it is the result of poverty and ignorance, and if we provided everyone with a strong education and basic financial stability, most (or all) violence would disappear. In this view, the solution to evil is not to fight it, but to talk and educate.
Interestingly, Jewish thought on this issue seems to line up with Dr. Kellerman and President Reagan: evil is not simply the absence of good. It is a “thing,” as Isaiah says (in 45:7): He “forms the light and creates darkness; [He] makes peace and creates evil.” The idea that God “creates evil” is both axiomatic and troubling. Axiomatic because in any monotheistic thought, only G-d can create anything. Troubling because how could the Source of all Good create evil? What does that even mean?
I may have found part of the answer at the recent Olami Summit (a gathering of over 600 university students from around the world in Stamford, Ct.) A student asked one of the Olami scholars, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” — a question so important that even Moses asked it of G-d (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 7a). Part of the rabbi’s answer included this important concept: “According to Jewish thought, life is wonderful — but is also filled with challenge. The whole point is to choose to do good and fight evil, within ourselves and anywhere.”
What comes out from all this is that not only does evil exist, but its existence is not trivial. Recognizing evil, and fighting it, is core to the very reason for our existence. When I overcome my natural greed and give a coin to charity, it is not a trivial decision. It is why I am here.
Whether it is regarding mass shootings or international incidents, it is easier to ignore evil or “wish it away.” Yet with the string of near-daily mass shootings in the US and the invasion of the Ukraine, the argument for simply relying on education and defensive policing seems weaker. Sometimes, one must stand up to evil.
When the State of Israel stands up for innocent victims of aggression, it is not a trivial piece of politics. It is part of the very raison d’etre of our existence. Our relationship with Russia is complicated. Russia clearly worked against Israel in the wars with the Arab states throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and did everything it could to destroy Judaism within its sphere of influence for roughly 70 years, since the Russian Revolution. Post Perestroika, it gravitated towards our orbit, at least partially (though let’s not forget its close relationship with Iran and Syria). And, yes, Ukraine’s history with the Jews is not a pretty one and more than one Ukrainian national hero was an anti-Semitic murderer.
But things have changed. Societies change. The Ukraine today is not the Ukraine of the 1940s – it has come much closer to the West. And Russia is not Russia of the early 2000s – in many ways, it has moved further away from the West. In this war, it is clear who the victim is.
We must be smart, we must remain connected to the Jewish community of Russia and help them as much as possible, but we must also remember that as individuals and as a country, closing our eyes to evil defeats the very purpose of our existence. We must stand for morality, not just practicality.