Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table.
- W. H. Auden
On the day he was arrested, accused of murdering, dismembering and then eating the body of a 36-year-old woman, Gregory Scott Hale was discovered by police doing something rather unremarkable. Something almost peaceful.
He was napping.
Coffee County, Tenn., police found him asleep on the couch, ever so casually, as if he'd just cut the grass.
"After murdering the victim, [Hale] beheaded her and cut off her hands," the affidavit reads. "[Hale] also admitted to eating part of the victim."
Then he takes a nap?
It is shocking on top of shocking: Uber-violence followed by a sleepy casualness? Both trouble us into an encounter with that very old question we ask in the face of nightmarish cruelty.
How does someone do something like this?
From post-prom sexual assault in our small towns to drive-by misogynistic murder in our big ones, we in America seem at a loss for explanations, shaking our heads in confused dismay, like hapless sailors on a sinking ship.
Perhaps it is time we reacquaint ourselves with a very old four-letter word.
For centuries, people have used the term to describe the bloody excesses of human nature. At some point in the last 50 years, evil as a serious topic is something we've largely shunned in our society, abandoning it to theological conversations, usually only conservative ones.
"The devil does not take a day off," one preacher told me recently.
That may be so, but personifying evil as a prowling figure -- Satan, Lucifer -- fogs up the intellectual depth we need, and is also off-putting to many groups on whose help we'd depend, like scientists, academics, religious and political liberals and students.
The 20th century, with its millions and millions dead, demands we study evil in serious ways, and refusing to do so is an act of elitism, as if discussing this was only reserved for voodoo cultures, not our smartphone intelligent one.
"The question is not whether evil exists, but how it exists, how it works," writes Lance Morrow in "Evil: An Investigation."
Morrow's brilliant book discusses the different views of evil -- "One Big Thing," he writes, "or ... Many Things?" -- including the Dracula bite image of evil: When an otherwise good person is infected, transfixed, possessed by some outside force.
"Evil brings on a falsifying transformation, the sudden substitution of a wicked shadow self, of Mr. Hyde," Morrow writes.
Evil is both outside and inside us, and we so desperately need some invention that is able to measure evil, like a Geiger counter that could make the invisible something measurable. Imagine the difference between standing inside St. Peter's Cathedral, or at the foot of the Bodhi tree, compared to the ovens at Dachau, or under the Southern lynching tree.
I picture evil as pollution, emitting toxins that enter and alter the atmosphere around us. Some streets and homes are more polluted than others, and if we live near them long enough, we, too, are likely to get sick. At some point, the cannibalistic Hale certainly did.
"We should view evil as opportunistic, passing like an electrical current through the world and through people, or wandering like an infection that takes up residence in individuals or cultures," Morrow writes.
Science demands experimentation: what would happen if the national media suddenly called a moratorium on reporting about school shootings? Would it reduce the rate of future shootings?
What would happen if every TV show or movie that glorified violence was suddenly replaced by ones that glorified visible and mature acts of compassion and selflessness?
While evil may shape shift, it always has one unalterable characteristic: Evil devalues and dehumanizes.
That means the fight against it can be articulated and orchestrated; we don't have to grope in the dark. When we value, humanize and respect, we are the antidote to evil, which means within our study of evil we find another misunderstood and neglected idea that needs serious consideration.
The power of love.
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.