Thursday, May 14, 2020

Dunblane — a question of evil? (1996)

 From the May 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is impossible to imagine the horror that confronted those first on the scene of the Dunblane tragedy; little children lying dead along with their school teacher, with many more children injured. Difficult though it may be in such circumstances, it is surely necessary to look for what motivated Thomas Hamilton beyond the simplistic notion that he was merely 'evil'.
The violent death of a child is always a terrible thing; there is something particularly appalling, obscene, about it. The younger the child the worse it seems, the more upsetting, sickening, infuriating, even frightening. The difficulty comprehending such an action is what frightens, the murder of a young child plumbing the depths of depraved behaviour and inevitably raising an anguished "why?". A great many people are probably unable to answer this any more satisfyingly than the hospital chaplain, interviewed on television after the massacre in Dunblane, who said that people have free will and there is no other answer than that. Many other people will blame evil itself, using the terms as a metaphysical category, something more than a concept, something that acts, something that is a cause rather than effect. Socialists find both explanations unsatisfactory, but many of us will grope as blindly as anybody in the face of such horror, all words paling into insignificance as we try to imagine the absolute desolation of the bereaved, or the fear of the victims.

Such events always prompt reflections on the subject of evil. The Guardian (16 March) published a particularly thoughtful and interesting article on which it raised the question of evil as a question that is particularly disturbing for liberal ideology, an ideology to which the author, Henry Porter, obviously subscribes:
  "It seems almost implicit that what took hold of that school was a terrible extraneous force, and the only word we have for it is Ron Taylor’s [the headmaster of Dunblane Primary School] word— evil. That should satisfy us, but it goes against every liberal's instincts to acknowledge evil as a dynamic in human affairs. "
Evil as an explanation goes against “liberal instincts” because it suggests the impossibility of eradicating the problems that beset humanity by reforming them away. This is a political point, a philosophical point and an ethical or moral point. Evil as a metaphysical force is pre-Enlightenment; it is a religious concept that challenges everything that the liberal heirs to the Enlightenment believe. It is a concept that underwrites a certain reactionary defeatism; it is essentially conservative and it stands behind the belief that we should, in John Major’s phrase, “understand less and condemn more”. This phrase “understand less” can be read in more than one way, and still be revealing if we want to understand the political and social dynamics of this metaphysical concept of evil. Let’s put it this way: simply, do we really want to understand less? Is it good enough for the survivors and the bereaved in Dunblane, or for victims of apparently senseless violence at any time or in any place, past or future, to understand less? Continued mystification is never a satisfactory answer, is never any answer at all, and will never do anything to prevent such horrors happening again.

Let’s look again at the above quote from the Guardian. Evil is a “terrible extraneous force”, a “dynamic in human affairs”. Docs the word “evil” really necessarily imply these things? It may be a social dynamic in that people are prompted to react in certain ways, but the idea that it is a cause of death or that it is something that acts independently of everything else is, as stated, an essentially theological view. That is the real “dynamic” of metaphysical evil; it cuts off any possibility of understanding, it abdicates responsibility and at the same time denies the possibility of dealing with violence in any other way than with punitive and draconian judicial measures—which will finally have little or no effect in any case. Irrational and tragic acts of random violence continue to occur.

Liberals at a loss
Liberalism, on the other hand, cannot understand such irrational violence because it is blind to the idea that “nurture” extends beyond the private family. The formation of an individual is an extremely complex open-ended process which, even after that individual’s death, and even with all possible information about that individual at our disposal, can never be adequately grasped or “summed up”. We might never know what tiny, apparently insignificant detail of a person’s life provides the spur to violence. There are two things we do know, though. One is that the individual remains responsible for his or her actions; we should never be prepared to allow an individual to abdicate their own responsibility for what they do, except perhaps in cases of absolute and total madness. The second thing that we also know on the other hand is that the individual is formed in relation to the world in which they live, that “nurture” involves the whole of society and in so far as we are part of society we all bear some responsibility for what occurs within it.

It can be said that evil exists, in that evil acts occur, but is does not at all follows that evil exists as an independent metaphysical force. Those who hold religious viewpoints often state that religion is necessary for “knowing the difference between right anti wrong”, implying that the irreligious are in some way necessarily morally deficient. Those of us who reject the ideology of religion may find that questions of ethics and morality are often more complex than religions like to admit, and we may have some difficulty with “moral absolutes”; but socialism certainly has a very strong ethical dimension, and disbelief in higher supernatural powers of authority is often more severe in terms of ethical imperatives than religion. We have no recourse to concepts of grace or salvation. As Jean-Paul Sartre once put it (quoted in Adieux by Simone dc Beauvoir), without God “all evil is in itself irreparable” This leaves us with the necessary responsibility for understanding the sources of evil acts and attempting to deal with them.

We live in a capitalist “liberal democracy”; this is another reason why liberals find events such as Thomas Hamilton’s actions in Dunblane difficult to understand. After all of the liberal social reform of the last hundred years or so here was a man who, while obviously deeply disturbed, was also not strictly insane, and who committed such a terrible act of violence against the least powerful members of his community. Liberalism can find no answer for—is incapable of understanding—such an act in a liberal society. This tragedy issued a challenge to liberalism because unless liberal capitalism is at fault then there must be some force of evil that compelled Hamilton to murder. Liberalism finds both options unacceptable.

Individuals and society
If we turn our attention to the little we know of Thomas Hamilton himself, we find that he conforms almost exactly to the classic profile of the mass murderer. He was a loner; he was paranoid, with the constant feeling that he was being persecuted; his relationship to children was such that, if he was not a paedophile, it at least involved the need to dominate and exercise power over them. He was desperate, in the strongest sense of the word; he was obviously in despair (the murder of children followed by suicide can only be accompanied by the kind of contempt for life that springs from despair). It does not require any leap of imagination to sec that all of these factors are linked to the failures of liberal capitalism, with its inevitable social fragmentation, alienation, powerlessness for the majority and feelings of anxiety or even despair that many feel at being apparently thrown into a world that is chaotic beyond all our attempts at control.

There was obviously more to it than this, and we shall never know exactly what additional factors drove Hamilton past a general dissatisfaction or unease into, first, the need to deny his own powerlessness by exercising an exploitative power over children, and finally the terrible and, yes, evil act of mass murder. But can anybody seriously believe that these events would definitely have occurred anyway, without the alienation, social fragmentation and chaos that are endemic in capitalist societies? In the final analysis, it must be recognised that there are no truly “evil” people in the sense of having been born that way—there is no metaphysical force of evil, there are only evil acts, and their genesis can be traced to the relationship between the individual and his or her society. Individuals are always responsible for their actions, but at the same time any crime, large or small, unless committed through an insanity that can be traced to a biological cause, is also an indictment of the society in which it is committed.

We cannot say that there would be no terrible tragedies in a socialist society. Albert Camus was exactly right when he wrote in The Rebel (a text that is otherwise in many ways philosophically questionable and politically confused) the following:

"children will still die unjustly even in a perfect society. Even by his greatest effort, man can only propose to diminish, arithmetically, the sufferings of the world. ”
One point, though, is that if such sufferings can be reduced, if only arithmetically, then we should obviously do so—but the reform of capitalism is incapable of this. The social problems that are necessarily implicated in evil acts such as occurred at Dunblane are the inevitable by-products of capitalism. The only solution that will reduce such problems to an appreciable extent is the revolutionary solution, which is to say the empowerment of ordinary people, the democratisation of society, the abolition of exploitation and oppression.
Jonathan Clay

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