The Mental Bargain We Make When We Use the Word “Evil”

Tuesday, October 3, 2017 - 4:18 pm

The Mental Bargain We Make When We Use the Word “Evil”

On Monday, I woke up to my tiny daughter (my alarm clock) yelling from the other room, “Momma, it’s morning!” I heard the familiar sounds of her little sister babbling in her crib. My daily double-embodiment of innocence: new morning, new humans, always approaching a new day with a sense of wonder.

I turned over and saw a text from my husband, who is out of town: “Have you read the news?” I hadn’t. He filled me in. Exhale. F&*k.

I dragged myself to my daughters’ rooms and put on a face that, I hope, didn’t look like I had just learned that more than 50 people had been killed and hundreds more injured. I got them dressed and fed and delivered to the adults that lovingly care for them when I don’t. Then I sobbed in the car listening to an NPR host ask a national security expert if we should no longer go to music concerts.

Our president’s response to one of the deadliest mass shootings in the history of the United States of America?

“Our unity cannot be shattered by evil…”

Setting aside the assumption of unity, which is something, I have to say, I am really not feeling these days, my battered psyche has snagged on the word evil, and it won’t let go.

Is there such a thing? And if there is, what is it? Why do we want to use it so badly in moments like this? What does that desire say about us?

Evil literally means “profoundly immoral and malevolent.” In our current moment, it seems to carry a sort of metaphysical seriousness. When someone does something that we find truly inexplicable and horrible and that, importantly, we want to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for, we jump to call it evil. “Wrong-headed” is for a case where we might have been able to intercede and make a good argument for a different action. Even “mentally ill” suggests that a person is treatable, or at least that the harm his mental illness might inflict on others could have been contained. But evil — well, it’s irreconcilable with humanity and unpredictable beyond any decent reason. It’s unpreventable.

After the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado, The New Yorker writer Rollo Ronig got snagged similarly by the use of the word “evil.” He writes:

“Evil is both harmful and inexplicable, but not just that; what defines an evil act is that it is permanently disorienting for all those touched by it.”

We grab for the word “evil” when we feel overwhelmed with the human capacity for death and destruction. When we feel grief that doesn’t know where to land. When we feel horrifically vulnerable. That makes sense to me. We want an act like this to be considered off the understandable spectrum of people damaging one another.

The irony is that our grab for the word “evil” seems all the more desperate when the suffering we’re witnessing is random. It is so uncomfortable to think that your brother or daughter or friend could die like those 50+ victims have — at any given moment, with no warning, while experiencing joy. It is even more uncomfortable, on some level, for us to admit that we could have prevented some of that death.

If it was evil, then it was inevitable. You cannot reasonably expect to eradicate all evil from the world. At some point, it’s going to flare up and you just have to hope that “your people” aren’t unlucky enough to be there at the movie theater or the country music concert or the elementary school. In other words, we would rather live with the belief that evil could kill us at any moment than with the belief that we could have prevented a murder (or 50) yesterday.

I don’t want to make that moral bargain in my brain anymore. I’m not going to call Stephen Paddock “evil,” and I’m not going to sit idly by when anyone else does — whether that person is my president or my neighbor. Not for his sake, but for my own. I refuse to live in a moral world of my own making where mass shootings are inevitable and don’t have anything to do with me. Instead of numbing myself with that powerful little word — “evil” — I’m going to dig into moral and strategic questions like:

Why did Paddock have 23 firearms (including an AR-15-style assault rifle) and hundreds of rounds of ammunition? Why does anyone have 23 firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition?

Why can’t this country agree on common sense gun legislation that would prevent the mass murder of innocent people?

What was Paddock’s mental state? Who knew about it? Why didn’t he have connections with people who were more aware of the dangers of his mental state and capable of getting him help?

Is mental illness on the rise among white men and, if so, why?

What kind of funding goes into addressing the mental health of men like Paddock?

What have I, personally, done in the wake of mass shootings in the past? How can I do something different?

It is only in asking these questions and pursuing the answers that I can look my daughters in the eyes tomorrow morning, and the next, and the next. “Evil” is a cop-out. It distances us from asking hard, important, and specific questions about how this could have been prevented and what each of us can do to save lives — actual human lives — in the future.

None of us with the power to vote, organize, and advocate is innocent in a country where this is not only possible, but frequent. Paddock intersected with our health systems, our schools, our gun policies before he put his finger on that trigger. If there is evil here, it is as subtle as you or me, anyone with a beating heart, pointing a finger at one dead man as if the moral responsibility lay only with his cold corpse.

If there is evil here, it is complacency, and it is collective.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    I think much of complacency and other inert-seeming behavior is symptomatic of confusion, of being overwhelmed or distracted, or of being depressed rather than “evil.” There is a certain amount too of letting ourselves off the hook too easily, as you write.
    I think we have yet to learn Paddock’s specific story. As those who have been interviewed regarding him seem not to identify him with any of the mass-shooter profiles with which we have become all too familiar, I am wondering whether this horrible event will turn out to be the result of a terrible reaction to medication.
    Regardless of the impetus, serious consideration of requirements for access to fire arms is long overdue.
    Is this a policy issue on which you are now working?

  • UT Jane

    I confess when I heard this described as pure evil, I didn’t have a response because using the term is so familiar during times like this. At the same time when I heard 45 say it, it felt very evasive to me. It felt like using such a strong word was a way to put it out THERE…in the realm of things beyond our control instead of right HERE where the buck is supposed to stop. In using the word evil I don’t have to own any of it. The flip side, which is more horrible from my perspective, is to say, “God is in control and we can trust Him that this was part of His plan” Evangelist Pat Robertson said that this tragedy was the result of God’s judgment on America. These responses may sound bizarre to you but both are very normal in the world I spent 30 years in the middle of. It is what has been said to me over and over in response to horrific events in my own life. It is clearer and clearer to me that for a whole lot of American’s – and many of them are influencing this president with this worldview that rather than being insightful is just another way to escape or absolve oneself of any ownership of the reality. Calling it pure evil or ascribing it to the will of God may make it possible for us survive another day with it being OUT THERE but nothing will change until we are all willing to say what you articulate so well in this heartfelt, honest piece. Thank you, dear one for your very ruthlessly real response…the lovely image of your daughters waking up and engaging in life as it is for them was beautiful. I needed to experience that with you. Somehow it gives me hope. Not sure exactly how but it does. Thank you.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Thanks Jane! Wasn’t sure if that intro was worthwhile, so it’s nice to hear that meant something to you. Sending love.

  • Matt Jones

    I always return to Heschel: “[I]n a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Always turn to Heschel. A smart move. Thank you.

  • Diane L Ballum

    I am sorry, BUT it is Utopian to believe that you can prevent all bad things from happening. Utopia is NOT REAL!!!!

  • Mimosa22

    Evil. We seem to have a love-hate relationship with this word. We are drawn to it, like moths to the flame. Movies make a lot of money exploiting the concept of evil in all its permutations. I, too, had a very visceral reaction to the president’s use of the word, but largely because he seems so uncomfortable with this sort of language. When he went into quoting scripture about grief and where God lives, he really sounded strained, almost as though he were being held hostage and forced by his captors to read words that made him very uncomfortable and with which he deeply disagreed. As uncomfortable as he might have been with those words, it may have paled in comparison to his discomfort if he had to discuss gun control and the responsibility we all bear in hideous acts like this one, by doing nothing to prevent the next one.

  • James Jay

    Hitler and many of his henchmen responsible for murdering millions went to their deaths believing they were doing the ‘right’ thing, they had a vision of how they ‘thought’ the world did or should work and indeed existed, hence Hannah Arendt’s view that Eichmann’s view of this behaviour was ‘banal’, it was just a numbers game to achieve a dreadful purpose. Rather like Trump and his cohorts ‘believe’ that climate-change is a hoax at best not proven, or The Church believed the Sun went around the Earth, until you test something in reality, it’s all in between the ears and therefore incredibly dangerous.

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  • Jennifer Kleinsasser

    Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table.
    – W. H. Auden

    Gustave Gilbert, psychologist who talked with Nazi war criminals during the months of the Nuremberg Trials:
    “I went through my notes last night. I’ve spent all these months trying to find a way inside their minds, hoping to understand how those people could commit such atrocities against my people. There are a couple of factors that explain a lot of it.

    First, Germany is a country where people do what they’re told. You obey your parents, teachers, clergymen, superior officers. You are raised from childhood NOT to question authority. So when Hitler comes to power, he has an entire nation that believes it’s perfectly natural to do whatever he says.
    Second: propaganda. For years, Germans have been bombarded with ideas like Jews are not real human beings, or they’re a corruption of the race. So when the government says it’s permissible to deny Jews their rights, and then says it’s imperative to kill these inferior people, they comply, even if they’ve been your friends, your neighbours.( (

    I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I’ve come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants. A genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

    Conversation between Gustave Gilbert, psychologist, and Albert Speer, Nazi leader charged with war crimes at the Nuremberg Trial:

    Gilbert: Help me understand what I witnessed today in the dining room. Goering’s ability to dominate and intimidate without possessing a real shred of power. How do you explain that?”

    Speer: Habit, instinct. Something in the German character that responds to authority, real or imagined.

    Gilbert: That’s it? That’s all it is? What about the ideas he expressed, the words, the thoughts? They had no impact?

    Speer: What ideas, what thoughts? They were only platitudes. Nazi Germany was built on empty platitudes.

    Gilbert: A man like you? You were seduced by empty platitudes?

    Speer: Of course — because you can hear in them any meaning you want.

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