This is how our President defined the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, an event that is by now largely forgotten, except for the victims and their families, of course. This comment is one of many all-too-predictable reactions, a kind of communal knee-jerk, which has become a cultural meme. And the media seem to concur.
But no, it wasn’t. There is no such thing as pure evil, just as there is no such thing as pure good. These are stereotypes, handy shortcuts, mainly useful if you want to sidestep any serious, in-depth analysis.
This meme is based on another, that of “free will.” Having recently read Sam Hariss’s mercifully brief book of the same title, and after discussing the issue around the campfire over the last night of our Fall retreat at Watershed, the connection between the two memes stands out in stark relief, at least for me. It becomes clear, on closer examination, whether from a psychological-backed-by-neuroscience point of view, such as Mr. Harris employs, or from a merely social-and-common-sense-logical perspective, that the two memes are inextricably interconnected. As Harris asserts:
The belief in free will has given us both the religious conception of “sin” and our commitment to retributive justice. The U.S. Supreme Court has called free will a “universal and persistent” foundation for our system of law, distinct from “a deterministic view of human conduct that is inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminnal justice system”...Any intellectual developments that threatened [the legitimacy of] free will would seem to put the ethics of punishing people for their bad behavior in question.
Again we mark the black-and-white-no-gray-area opposition, typical of our public dialog [brackets mine] comparing free will as an alternative to determinism, as if there is nothing in between, no room for any more nuanced analysis. And we should note that this presidential “opinion” is meant for public consumption, predictably reinforcing the usual self-serving, divide-and-conquer stratagem characteristic of such pronouncements from on high, while offending no one of any real political consequence.
If we can delude ourselves sufficiently to define such an act in these terms, we can shirk our responsibility for confronting it for what it is. Which renders all such declarations as convenient truths, or myths. But it does take a community, however regrettably, to deal with irrational actions of individuals raised in, and conditioned within and by, that community. It is understandable that our leaders would hope to deflect our attention by resorting to a fundamental bifurcation of reality into promordial “good” versus “evil,” rather than confront the complexity of the reality.
It also promises to absolve us of doing what we can, or should, do about it. Evil is not our fault, after all. We did not create this reality. But rather than fob it off to God and/or Satan, or whatever other handy default, we should embrace a less simple truth, a problem in which we all play a part, the solution for which begins at home.
It may be clarifying to regard these atrocities as incursions of a form of guerilla war. However, the war we speak of is not between ISIS or Islam and America. It is instead a struggle between the kind of profound ignorance that Buddhism points to, one in which we all participate to differing degrees; that and the difficulty of recognizing and accepting the truth of the causes and conditions of our existence, which are immensely complex.
To assume that some individuals are simply bad apples, and that nothing can be done to anticipate and prevent their self- and other-destructive impulses, is to abdicate our responsibility to recognize the same tendencies in our own minds. If we are honest, we can all identify with the urge to lash out, and may remember those times in our lives when we did just that, harming ourselves and others unnecessarily. We may still confront these urges on a daily basis.
If we look closely, we can see that our actions may be driven by instinct, hormones, or other internal, subliminal motives such as Harris points to, as driving our outward behavior, thus not of our own free will. The 19th Century philosopher Shopenhauer makes much the same case, if with less reliance on scientific evidence, in his “The World as Idea; The World as Will,” in which he argues persuasively that those motives, desires, actions and responses that we take as our own, in regard to sexuality, for example, we feel are to the advantage of our enlightened self-interest: that is, our “will.” But they are actually in service of the will of the species, i.e. in the interest of the child to be born as a result of our attractions and actions. This is one form of delusion.
Another delusion is that which afflicts these perpetrators of mass atrocities, which we strive so fervently to understand (the “why” of it). A third delusion is our cavalier interpretation of the events as, in the current example, “acts of pure evil,” or some other nonsense. As Master Dogen reminds us in Genjo Koan, there are those who are continually in delusion, throughout delusion.
The perpetrators in this war hit and run, sometimes surviving and striking again. Which is the guerilla form of warfare the American colonialists used to defeat the British armies, who would form ranks and stand in the open field of battle, absurdly expecting their enemy to do the same thing. This may have been the last vestige of the form of warfare emulating the idea that there is something noble about it.
One doesn’t have to be trained in military strategy to understand that in any war, the supply lines to the enemy have to be disrupted, if we are to disrupt the attacks. Only if we can locate the routes by which the enemy re-arms and re-supplies its troops on the front line, can they be cut off, rendering them weaponless, or at lease deprived of ammunition.
In our current struggle against domestic mass murderers, we at least know where the supply lines are. They begin with the manufacturers, and for the most part move through a limited and known distibution network of licensed dealers, gun shows, and private transactions, as well as less-traceable underground networks.There is a weekly gun show just blocks from the Las Vegas massacre.
But they are not being disrupted, because vested interests and so-called leaders, supposedly on our side of the conflict, are profiting from the supply chain, either directly or indirectly. Parties to this proxy war either lobby for the gun business or are supported by contributions, which some consider bribes. In any international war recognized as such, this would be seen as traitorous, and punishable by death. Those who profit from the sales of guns used in the latest massacre are culpable, to the degree that they profit from tragedy. Connecting the dots is not all that difficult.
“If guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns,” another meme, is belied by the fact that even if everyone at the Las Vegas concert had been armed to the teeth, it would have done nothing to prevent the assault. That criminals will always be able to get their hands on guns through illicit means is a separate issue. The point here is that those supplying the war efforts of our enemies are profiting if not profiteering, and should be held accountable. The survivors of victims of shootings, one would think, would mount a class-action lawsuit against the industry that profits from their suffering. But arms manufacturers are protected by a law, passed by their congressional agents, shielding them against such action.
The argument that we do not, cannot, know who the enemy is, is irrelevant. In many war zones, the same may be said of the enemy. They arise out of the populace and fade away back into the village, into the bush, or the jungle. This is the nature of guerilla warfare. What if our generals and commanders in the field, say in World War II, reacted to the latest attack with moments of silence and prayers, rather than pursuing the enemy and their suppliers? This is not a formula for winning a war, but amounts to a pre-emptive surrender.
Where you cannot find and pursue the enemy actors directly, you can attack their sponsors and suppliers. In a proxy war, the third parties to the conflict are not on the front lines. They are safe in their gated compounds in foreign countries. The locals fight their fights for them, and are rewarded in return, with financial and materiel support.
It does not matter that this week’s mass shooter is unrelated to last week’s, or next week’s. It does not matter “why” they commit the atrocity, whether in the service of a mad religious belief, or a personal psychosis. They are nothing but a proxy army for the real combatants, who are the makers and distributors of the weapons of war. Some say they are the real enemy. They need to sell ever more weapons to stay profitable, which is ever more difficult in a heavily saturated market.
The actual shooters, then, are merely “useful fools.” They keep the consumption going — of weapons, ammunition, and lives — the latter of which are merely the collateral damage, necessitated by the bottom line of arms providers.
You may disagree with the foregoing arguments, and that is fine with me. I make these points only for the sake of argument. My main point is that when we prefer to “explain” the unexplainable with simplistic nostrums that reinforce stereotypes, rather than take a closer look at what is happening, we are not really interested in understanding, or doing anything about, the problem. As long as it is not in my back yard, I have other things to attend to, thank you. And there is something to be said for fatigue, getting used to the new normal of ongoing disasters du jour. No wonder many resort to belief, e.g. that some individuals are just simply evil, unlike us.
Belief is a hedge against doubt. As long as we can shore up our beliefs, primarily by not examining them too closely, we can re-establish our comfort zone ever more quickly, in the aftermath of the most recent tragedy. We are encouraged to do so by the very media and first responders that present the news. How can we make sure this never happens again? Why did the perp do what he/she/they did? Now let’s move on to the healing phase. And the next outrage in the next cycle. The first thing reported are the numbers, so that we can judge how “important” the most recent event is, against its predecessors. If it fails to at least match, or exceed the last such incident, it is less newsworthy. Meanwhile, the perpetrators compete to rack up even more deaths, ever more dramatic flourishes to the atrocity, in order to gain the attention of the media, and perhaps to grasp the faux immortality of infamy.
Again, these are not novel revelations, but have become reprotage stereotypes, which may have nothing to do directly with the immediate motivation of the actors, which they likely do not understand, themselves.
When and if we can no longer believe in our own prejudices and opinions, however; when we find we are hiding behind protective walls of delusion; when we thoroughly examine them in practice, and see that they are constructed as a defensive perimeter of the wretched self at the center of our fantasy; we are faced with an awful void, a yawing chasm of doubt, that threatens to undermine our very sense of being in the world, our central place in it. If we cannot manage to see ourselves as good, and them as bad, for example, we enter into a zone of no reliable assurance, no comfort.
If we believe that we do not have free will, to any degree that makes the term viable, we can become confused about our culpability, in the defense of others as well as ourselves. If determinism is the only alternative to free will, we cannot be responsible for our lives, or the actions we take. But if we can accept that free will is a concept like any other, including determinism or fate, we can examine closely whether we are exerting free will, or not, in our daily activities, and to what degree.
Yes, other factors come into play when we make a decision to act, but are they truly determinant of the action we finally take? I intended to write this paper a few weeks ago when Las Vegas was still in the news, and here I am, finishing it at a later date. In between, whatever subliminal impulses occurred to me, indicating a lack of free will, or those that impelled me to begin, the impulse to continue and complete the message cannot be attributed to unknown or inchoate intention. Embracing the reality of no free will in the absolute sense is, in itself, an act of free will, perhaps the only act that qualifies as such.
The fact that an impulse, say to sit in zazen, can be detected in the brain a few hundred milliseconds before we become aware of it, and actually sit down, does not mean that our decisions are out of our control altogether. It cannot begin in the brain, as isolated from reality. Something, some stimulus or other, was registered by the brain in the milliseconds just before the decisive impulse was triggered. It may have been a picture of a monk or nun, catching a whiff of incense, or an emotional shock that caused a reaction, reminding us of the serenity we last felt in zazen.
Of course, multiple, partially determining factors come together in the present moment, even extending to influences from past lives, according to classical Buddhism. But the decision to act on them, or not, surely must be conscious. Unless we are so addicted to the substance of choice, or to the pleasure we are seeking in sensuality, for instance, that we cannot resist.
This is why we look upon zazen as a form of withdrawal. We temporarily withdraw from our usual attachments to pleasurable sensations and circumstances, as well as our aversion to unpleasant conditions. In this neutral territory of the middle way, we are free to take action in line with our impulses, or in spite of them.
Whether or not we are subject to, or free from, will is — like the other causes and conditions of our existence — to be discovered in zazen. What starts out as an exercise in free will, i.e. the decision to attend a retreat, for example; evolves to another level by the third or fourth day in. It is still our choice, but the paramaters have changed, usually dramatically, from the first impulse.
If, as Master Hyakujo pointed out in the example of the fox who was a Zen Master, we are neither subject to nor free from the law of causality, but one with it; then the only example of free will must be that with which we are also one. In Zen there is no actual dichotomy. In the mind, or imagination, there are many.