Va. Tech, Evil and Forgiveness

Two Penn State students dressed for Halloween as Virginia Tech shooting victims. The following is a letter to the editor of the Daily Collegian by a friend and student affairs colleague.

Waking up the morning of Friday, December 07, 2007 – the anniversary of bombings at Pearl Harbor – I read the Collegian cover story “Va. Tech Mockery Incites Anger.” As someone who studies ethics, which is deep consideration of how we human beings treat one another, I wondered “is this kind of mockery pathological?” and yet wonder if it’s too convenient to dismiss the choices involved as the acts of those with mental illness.

In Tales of Good & Evil, Help and Harm Philip Hallie argues for us to understand evil in a way that is not pathological, not crazy, not banal or passive, but as willful choice. Otherwise, we take no responsibility for what we’ve categorized as a natural fact of a few isolated actors. Evil is to some extent comprised of choices that we have the rational capacity to think through before we take them, yet instead we prefer not to think or imagine the consequences. It is not entirely this, but it seems evil is far more likely to occur when we fail to make ourselves good and ethical, not-evil, by wondering or imagining how evil could result from our choices. Is it too much to call this most recent form of gruesome mockery “evil”? Either way, it deserves further consideration.

I’m not dwelling on evil in order to sanctify hatred of the people who mocked recent victims at Va. Tech. For, to do so I would have to implicate myself, and all of us among Penn State Communities. If what Hallie says is true, we have all failed to create and sustain communities in which choosing to mock murder victims would be clearly understood as unethical, maybe even evil. Individuals make choices, and yet such choices depend on who we are in community with one another. We are all responsible. To claim we are not collectively responsible is an irrational individualistic belief – without evidence – that will only provide ground for similar unethical acts in our future.

And we are capable of forgiveness, what Archbishop Desmond Tutu teaches in No Future Without Forgiveness. We exist with capacities to forgive people who have committed evil or harmful acts by re-humanizing them through restorative principles of truth-telling, giving them opportunities to apologize and providing opportunities for them to actively make amends, while never forgetting that we all share this space.

We all belong, and everyone deserves dignity. Even when we fail from time to time.

by Christian Matheis

Reprinted with permission from the author.