Belmont Club

No Hell Below Us, Above Us Only Sky

Art imitates life. But does life imitate art? The superficial similarities between real-life neuroscience Ph.D. student James Holmes, the shooter at the Aurora, Colorado massacre, and the villain of Stephen Hunter’s not-too-well-written thriller Soft Target are uncanny. The fictional mastermind in Hunter’s book is a genius-level, upper-middle class white kid who is bored with the world. He recruits some jihadis to attack a mall (loosely modeled after the Mall of America) in a Mumbai-style attack to provide him with a little stimulation. He wants to turn the mall into the ultimate first-person multiplayer shoot-em-up game and commits the act not for money, not even for power, but just to do something way cool.

Any good novelist captures his life and times, so it is no surprise that Hunter, a competent writer who sometimes rises to brilliance in the action genre, should also capture the political spirit of the age. When news of the attack spreadw in his story, Hunter describes the reactions of “the superintendent of state police … Colonel Douglas Obobo … the son of a Kenyan father and American mother … educated at Harvard Law.” Obobo immediately knows who the perp is, who it has got to be:

Some crazed white militia, some NRA offshoot, some screwball Tea Party gone berserk. In his mind, one never could tell about the right in this country, particularly deep in the glowering Midwest, where men clung to guns and religion, cursed bitterly as America changed, and still believed, fundamentally, in the old ways.

Unfortunately Obobo is wrong; and because the mall is a “gun-free zone,” the evil boy genius’ not very bright killers drive the crowds before them like sheep before wolves — until someone who didn’t get the word decides to fight back and kills the perps.

Hunter’s evil boy genius never sees himself as evil at all. The concept is totally foreign to him. He lives in a universe in which the concept of evil has no meaning. And when the hero eventually guns him down, the genius mastermind’s only regret is that in the game of real life there isn’t a restart button to do it all again. He dies without regrets, without remorse.

Now maybe life is imitating art. What are regrets anyway? Is there any place I can download that?

According to the New York Daily News he is being held under suicide watch in solitary confinement in the Arapahoe Detention Center.

The newspaper was told Holmes is still acting out his “Joker” persona.

“He hasn’t shown any remorse,” a jail employee said. “He thinks he’s acting in a movie.”

One released inmate told the Daily News Holmes had been spitting at guards and at his cell door. “Dude was acting crazy,” the inmate said.

AJ Heil asked on his blog what a world without evil would be like. While most people would think it would be the most wonderful place, he has other ideas. “I submit to you that it should not be a world that we desire to live in. A world without evil, could quite possibly be the worst world of all”:

Without evil, there would be no point to doing anything at all. … By eliminating problems and hardships, life would become a dreamlike existence — completely aimless in purpose. … Without the ability to act wrongly, there would be no right. … A world without evil would be the worst possible world.

Heil overstates the case, but only just a little. As he points out, “a world without evil” would also be a world without good; one in which the price for the inability to do wrong was the impossibility of doing anything worthwhile. It would also be a world without freedom, since for freedom to be real, choices have to be real. When every Choice(i) == Choice(j) for all (i,j) then freedom is an undefined value. This is the familiar critique of nihilism. “The term nihilism is sometimes used in association with anomie to explain the general mood of despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence that one may develop upon realizing there are no necessary norms, rules, or laws.”

The interesting thing is that the hardened criminals in the Arapahoe Detention Center want to kill Holmes. This will not come as a surprise to those familiar with the cultures of criminal prison versus political prison. The difference is that in most criminal jails the inmates know they are bad. In some political prisons the very concept of evil often does not exist. Criminal prisons are full of bad humanity. Political prisons are packed with people who have put themselves above mere humanity.

This is a theme familiar to political history and was explored quite effectively by Fyodor Dostoevsky at the end of the 19th century. Ziaul Haque describes the seesaw battle between the possibilities of nihilism, as championed by Marxism, and the alternative warning, as represented by Dostoevsky:

For the Marxists evil does not really exist, since it is solely a matter of social evil which can be eliminated by the revolution. But for Dostoevsky evil exists as an individual fact, in each man’s heart and expresses itself precisely in the violent means used by the revolution. With their historic and social justifications the Marxists can wash clean even the blackest of consciences. Dostoevsky rejects this sort of cleansing and affirms the ineradicable existence of evil.

Yet the last ninety years, we have witnessed in Russia a kind of match between Dostoevsky and Marx. The first round was won by Dostoevsky, since he had written a masterpiece; the second round went to Marx, since his theories produced a revolution; yet the third round seems to have been won by Dostoevsky.

Doubtless the nihilists will get the upper hand again as in fact they presently do have it. Today both evil and the devil have been relegated to the status of fairytales. Nobody believes in them any more. The more enlightened the church, the less they believe in the devil.

But if Haque is right, Dostoevsky’s point of view will battle back until men regain the old pole stars and reclaim freedom. And so it will be for a while. But no one should imagine that such a victory will be everlasting. The idea that neither the devil nor evil really exist is a persistent one, and it will be back. How did Dostoevsky put it? “Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

Yet how can God and the Devil fight when neither exists? In that case, maybe neither does man, but then how would we know?


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