Evil is a product of human behavior, much of it genetically determined, of environmental factors, of the values that a culture identifies itself with. Though we may speak of evil as an absolute, its meaning is relative and pliable. Too often, labeling an event as the product of evil can prevent understanding true causes. If evil is a force external to the human world, and therefore beyond our understanding, then there is no explanation for such events as Nazi Germany, the attacks on the World Trade Center, the massacre of summer campers in Sweden, and the killings at Columbine high school in 1999. Most of us would agree these horrors can be described as “evil,” but those responsible for them are likely to have regarded them as entirely rational. If evil is beyond our control, then attempting to understand these events in the fullest way is pointless. I believe explanations are always possible, that causes leading to the tragic effects can be identified.
In Columbine (Twelve, 2009), Dave Cullen sorts out the events and individuals of the notorious shootings in 1999. One of his purposes is to correct various myths that surround the shootings, many of which persist to the present day. These include the notion that the killers targeted athletes or minorities and that they were part of a larger conspiracy. One myth in particular holds that one of the students, asked by Eric Harris whether she believed in God, answered that she did and was then shot in the head. Cullen shows that this never happened, and that it was another student, a survivor, who professed her faith to one of the gunmen. Cullen covers the killings from as many angles as one can imagine: the killers, their parents, the victims, their parents, school administrators, local law enforcement, the FBI.
But his main purpose is to determine cause. He does not suggest that evil caused the killings. Instead after much examination of personalities and events, after interviews with FBI profilers and psychologists, he concludes that Eric Harris was a psychopath who methodically planned the killings well ahead of time, who wanted to see the extinction of the entire human race, and who enlisted the support of the passive and willing Dylan Klebold, a disaffected and unhappy friend.
Though I’d be unhappy if Cullen had ascribed the cause of Columbine to evil, suggesting that it was the work of a psychopath (with all that the word entails) is only slightly more enlightening. This effectively written and researched book offers a full account of the Columbine events, but it left me unsatisfied on the issue of cause. Psychopath in our modern times is just another word for evil.