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Radical evil: A reflection on the Orlando massacre

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, anthropology professor | June 19, 2016

It’s Saturday night a week after a non-entity coolly took the lives of 49 carefree revelers — having a good time, hanging loose, drinking, singing, dancing to the pulse, flirting, romancing, teasing, playing. To have the weekend fiesta cut short by the rat-a-tat-tat of an assault rifle meant for mud-splattered soldiers in foxholes (bad enough there) in the hands of a preening, smirking nobody, holding hostages in a toilet stall – that has a name: radical evil. Immanuel Kant defined radical evil as a “depravity,” a “perversity of heart,” or just a bad heart.

Orlando’s Pulse was a sacred space, a nonpartisan, hand crafted, organic, hate-free zone where men and women of all stripes, genders, sexes and colors — but mostly brown, mostly male, mostly Latino, mostly Puerto Rican — could mingle and enjoy their leisure and pursue their desires, their own sweet paths to happiness. Their civil rights were shattered, their liberty was trumped by the hate talk of the “trumpers” and by the National Rifle Association.

We’ve failed as a mature democracy by allowing one amendment to trump all others. If all those Indians killed by Kit Carson and his ilk, if all those Black men lynched by white men in pointy white hats, if those four little girls in  Birmingham killed by old white men, if the pregnant and nursing mothers massacred by Captain Ernest Medina and Charlie Company at My Lai in Vietnamif the little tykes of Sandy Hook, if the multicolored caretakers of the disabled, murdered in San Bernadino, can’t turn us around, can these martyred Saturday night revelers and dancers melt the ice in our hearts?

The long history of massacres in America can teach us that most of these have been led by lone wolves, by vigilantes who take the law into their hands. Most shooters, death squad leaders, mass murders, exterminators have no ideology, no political theory, no spirituality. They are often retrograde, orthodox conservatives who fear change, who lack self-discipline, courage, and who suffer, if it may be called that, a perversity of heart.

Come Sunday, may the dead sleep and may we wake up and do what we can to undo the terrible impasse we are in and to recognize that unending wars abroad will come home to roost. The consequences have spilled over into our homes and private lives, our relationships with one another as citizens, our schools, mental asylums, and prisons, all of our attitudes and institutions.

We who have dedicated our lives to knowledge and learning must resist, in particular, the self-censorship that has prevented honest discussion of militarization and gun control, law-enforcement and incarceration policy, public surveillance, and the loss of privacy that we have inflicted on ourselves.