07/25/2012 04:18 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2013

Stop Calling the Aurora Shooter 'Evil'

In the aftermath of last Friday's horrific mass shooting in Aurora, CO, national politicians rushed to denounce the massacre in the the strongest possible terms. More often than not, "evil" was made mention of; or similarly malevolent imagery invoked. President Barack Obama lamented that, "[s]uch violence, such evil is senseless. It's beyond reason." Mitt Romney called the shooting "a few moments of evil" in Colorado.

Of course, this type of language is tempting, and understandable, in the wake of a senseless tragedy. (What kind of person does what James Holmes stands accused of doing, except for an evil one?) It's also, however, problematic if you're trying to have a conversation about mass violence, as was made clear when a number of anti-gun control politicians added their own wrinkle to the rhetoric. Governor John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), for example, opined that "[i]f it was not one weapon, it would have been another, and [Holmes] was diabolical." Senator Ron Johnson (R- Wisc.) emphasized that "[t]his isn't an issue about guns. This is really just an issue about sick, demented individuals." Romney, in rejecting the idea that stricter regulations would have helped, insisted that "[o]ur challenge is not the laws. Our challenge is people who, obviously, are distracted from reality and do unthinkable, unimaginable, inexplicable things."

What's interesting about each of these three statements is how completely they manage to sidestep the issue of gun control. In focusing on the nefarious dimensions of the crime, they've each managed to downplay the importance of guns in one of the worst individual acts of gun violence in U.S. history. By treating the shooter as though he's simply an evil man -- and evil, of course, is irreducible, irrational, operates not on reason but perversions of morality -- they've also reduced the actual shooting to a force of nature, beyond our capacity to understand.

The rhetorical acrobatics are on full display in a Daily News column this morning from conservative columnist (and avowed gun owner) S.E. Cupp:

"Evil is difficult to deconstruct. It's unpredictable and manifests in unimaginable ways, often more horrifying than anything fiction could invent. And evil acts are nearly impossible to prevent."

"The debate over gun control that inevitably stirs after a tragedy like Aurora is just as ineffective at dealing with unmitigated evil," Cupp writes. "That's because evil will find a way." She then goes on to call for "targeted responses," rather than "broad and indiscriminate ones," but gives no indication as to what those targeted responses might be, or why more institutional approaches have, as she claims, failed. That's because the argument Cupp, et al., are employing is less about judging the validity of gun control arguments -- that is, considering their merits and rendering a conclusion based on facts -- than they are about setting a mood, and driving home a point about "evil."

In embracing this view of the Colorado shooting, Cupp and co. are endorsing, explicitly or otherwise, the notion that the best response to violence is violence. (As an aside, it's worth noting here that Colorado gun sales are up "sharply" since Friday's events.) At the same time, such an attitude totally ignores the shooter's motivations for mass violence, and the means by which he was able to achieve it; renders them, in fact, secondary and insignificant when compared with his twisted, nigh demonic, character. It ascribes to the shooter power he never actually had.

It does all of these things while explicating barely any of them, and it disregards counter-arguments without having to address their merits, because no matter what we do, "evil will find a way."

On the whole, positions like this are fatalistic and counterproductive -- but even more than that, they're intellectually lazy. They evince a much cleaner, and much wronger, notion of the world than we might come to from engaging with the full set of information we have about the shooter. As Gawker's Max Read put it on Friday: "James Holmes did not materialize in a movie theater in Aurora this morning, free of any relationship to law and authority and the structures of power in this country."

The shooter was, in part, a product of his environment -- an incredibly complex, knotty, multivalent environment -- that ultimately drove him to shoot 70 people in a movie theater. The more we're able to understand the root causes of these types of events, the better we'll be able to prepare for the possibility of such a disaster in the future. On the one hand, this means trying understand how the shooter ended up in the position he was in; whether the institutions around him could have done more to alleviate whatever dangerous tendencies were roiling inside of him. It also means examining the role that existing gun laws and gun culture played in facilitating the massacre.

To do that, we'll have to dispatch with retrograde notions of good and evil in favor of a more nuanced approach. That means we have to allow for the possibility that evil isn't indefatigable; and that stricter regulations might possibly have saved the lives of the 12 people killed in Aurora last Friday -- or the thousands more killed by guns every year in the United States.

Perhaps, as gun-rights advocates would suggest, the second amendment actually is our best defense against people like the Aurora theater shooter. They should prove it. If we're going to have a national conversation about the Aurora shootings, we have to have an actual conversation. To ignore salient details about the event -- to argue that it's "too soon" or "ineffective" to burden ourselves with such discussions (evil being what it is) -- betrays a willing and contemptible ignorance.