March 18, 2019
On Wednesday we walked the Burke Lake trail. A 4.5-mile loop that circumvents the lake just off Rte. 123 in Fairfax, it’s a flat, well-manicured trail popular with runners, bikers, and walkers with or without dogs. I’ve run it many times with the THuGs.
I thought it would be a good way to get some fresh air and exercise, since I haven’t had much of either lately. Sandy was up for it, and she’s more of a walker than a runner. Doing something rather than nothing always is positive. And we’re trying, these days, to stay positive.
The trail started out dry, but after the first mile we found muddy water, and much of the last three miles meant skipping around it or through it. Not a dealbreaker, but the mud did remind that we’re still slogging, literally, out of a raw, nasty winter that has taught that life is fragile. More than that, a few hiccups in your formerly robust health can give you a case of what I call the “poor-mees.” You find yourself wondering what you’ve accomplished of value as the years flew by, and if you’re honest, maybe you’re not so happy with your score. And you wonder why.
The outdoors does that for me. The Burke Lake trail wouldn’t appear on anyone’s list of the most thought-provoking, creativity-inspiring places. It’s just a mitten-shaped lake and a trail for people who live mostly in subdivisions. For serious hikers, the degree of difficulty is about one in ten. We finished, gasping a little, but happy for doing it.
That was Wednesday. Thursday the mass shooting at the mosques in New Zealand occurred, with all the features of these slaughters that still horrify but no longer surprise: automatic weapons. Tactical clothing. Video, live-streamed on social media platforms. Eloquent condemnations by most world leaders. And this time a “manifesto” that credited President Trump as a “symbol of white identity and common purpose.”
Because the killer’s words were so unhinged and paranoid, and yet carefully prepared, the predominant response to his announcement of his hatred for Muslims and non-European peoples was not only outraged horror, but also warnings about the growth of right-wing terror. Such warnings have been making the rounds even before Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comment about the Charlottesville riot of August 2017.
His moral equivalence following that event set the tone for the popular response to it, and now to Christchurch: shock, outrage, but also resignation that it will happen again. Elizabeth Bruenig, in The Washington Post, went further, fixing on the nature of evil, neutering it, somehow, with abstraction: “evil is unreflective, shallow, empty … it never really perceives itself, though it always considers itself an exacting and scrupulous judge of others,” she wrote.
In an early February piece she suggested that “the nature and essence of being an individual—what we’re really like, whether we’re really good or evil or suspended somewhere in between—goes largely unexamined.” She resurrects the case of serial killer Theodore Bundy, a rapacious murderer who also impressed as charming and shrewd.
But this turns evil into what? A character trait, maybe, that individuals may choose to indulge. In the February column she cites actor Liam Neeson, who revealed that at one time he looked for a black man to murder to avenge the rape of a friend, then suddenly came to his senses.
The problem of evil leads us back, once again, to the problem of the existence of God, with the perennial question: if there is a God, why does he permit evil? It’s the question asked, to name just one case, by the widows and widowers of 9/11 who stopped believing after they lost their spouses.
The Christian understanding may be the simplest: if we conceive of perfection, then evil also must exist. We know the “good” if we recognize its absence. In the Christian coda, God alone is perfect. If then follows that all else is imperfect, in an infinite series of degrees, e.g., from St. Francis of Assisi to Hitler. All men are flawed, corruptible: some people pilfer office supplies at work, others commit mass murder.
Sure, we all recognize that “nobody’s perfect.” And to credit “goodness” as a counterweight to the existence of evil seems neutral, banal. We need to feel anger, outrage, fury, at the existence of Brenton Harrison Tarrant, the Christchurch killer. To isolate evil as a kind of quirk, an indulgence, a bad habit, is to represent it as distinct from human nature, which is impossible—for example, to wonder whether if he had had a better education or better parents he wouldn’t have killed those people. And we know it will happen again, because we acknowledge that good in man’s nature foreshadows and coexists with evil. Where we ourselves reside on that infinite chain from sainthood to someone like Tarrant is forever a mystery.
The Burke Lake trail was unusually empty Wednesday, as we navigated the mud, our minds led to distant places, resigned to more challenges and choices in months ahead. Thursday came and summoned agonizing questions that all of us, once again, struggle to answer.