When I was sixteen, I committed an evil deed. The victim was an innocent girl who not only had never harmed me, she had gone out of her way to be nice to me. When my evil deed reached the ears of Mr. H, the vice principal, he was flabbergasted. “Why did you do this?” He didn’t know me, but he had enough intel to know that “You are normally a shy and quiet girl who has never given any of your teachers a moment’s trouble.”
In fact I often was sound asleep in class, something none of my teachers remarked upon. Mr. H was an old man – maybe forty, or even forty-five. He had been doing this work for longer than I had been alive. He made a disparaging comment about my four older brothers, their wild ways, and bad blood. He stared at me as if I were a new breed of sick freak he had not yet encountered. He assigned me to ten weeks detention and we never spoke again. The detention, ten weeks of sitting for an hour in a room after the end of the school day, gave me more opportunities to sleep. I was working full time at a physically taxing job and I was often too afraid to sleep at home.
When I committed the evil deed, I felt no empathy for my victim. I felt no shame at my own debasement. For years afterward, I never thought about it. It’s only recently that I look back and witness what I did, as if watching a movie with a sudden, shocking twist. The worst aspect of this movie is that, for years, I felt nothing. I wish I could say that I felt horribly guilty. I didn’t. I reverted to that ice cold state. In most of my life, including when I was in high school, I have felt and I feel empathy for others. Can you be a psychopath for an eyeblink of your life’s span?
What was my evil deed? I was verbally abusive of a vulnerable classmate. If you think that doesn’t sound like much of an evil deed, you don’t understand the power of words, and you don’t understand teenage girls. My words were so vicious the girl left the school.
When I try to understand the problem of evil, I think about this event. I recognize that evil is part of the human condition. Evil is not something out there that other people do. Evil is something in here and it entraps me just as it entraps others No, I’ll never have the power of a Hitler and I’ll never have on my hands the blood of millions. But I, like all humans, have power and exercise that power and sometimes consciously choose to exercise that power in a way that harms others.
In a 2002 PBS documentary addressing the September 11 terror attacks, Ann Ulanov, the Christiane Brooks Johnson Memorial Professor of Psychiatry and Religion at Union Theological Seminary, was asked to define evil. She mentioned, and then rejected, contemporary theories that write evil off as a side effect of mistreatment. People can be mistreated and yet not lash out in evil ways. Indeed, “Everybody Hurts,” as REM sang. Some people endure painful injustice and do not go down the road to evil. Think of Elie Wiesel and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Auschwitz survivors who devoted their lives to humanitarian service. Ulanov describes how some people choose to cultivate a sense of victimization and when they do that, they encounter a force that invites them to use their sense of victimization to justify their destruction of others.
“From the psychological side, there are theories that say destructiveness comes from privation and deprivation. It isn’t something in itself; it’s from bad parenting or low self-esteem. What religion … offers is a recognition that evil is a force … an active force of absence to vitiate, annihilate, destroy … It’s not something that is caused by the blows of fate … pieces of you have been destroyed, mangled, treated as if they are of no value. You can get to your outrage, your absolute determination to retaliate for vengeance … you feel that because of something done to you. But deeper than that, it’s like an undertow of the ocean … There’s something that you contact that’s much bigger than what you did to me or what I’m going to do to you. And you get caught in that; you’re in something that’s outside yourself … you’re caught in what the New Testament calls principalities and powers. It’s a power that catches you, and you are not enough by yourself to defeat it.”
Ulanov mentions “principalities and powers.” That is “something that’s much bigger than you … you are not enough by yourself to defeat it.” This is an allusion to Ephesians 6:12: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” One can surmise that Ulanov is talking about Satan.
I have to acknowledge that I’ll never overcome evil permanently. I can’t even overcome it in so simple a way as to fully comprehend it. For the life of me I can’t understand why I was so cruel to that girl in high school. Given that I can’t fully understand or permanently defeat evil, I recognize that I and all humans require a mechanism for dealing with evil on a daily basis, and sometimes on a minute-to-minute basis.
A culture’s successful mechanism for dealing with evil must go much farther than inducing calm or happy feelings. As increasing numbers of people in the West abandon Judeo-Christian practices and values, other methods are applied. WNYC, New York City’s NPR affiliate, broadcasts a daily “moment of zen” during which a meditation teacher encourages listeners to focus on their breathing and become “mindful” of their various body parts, i.e., “Think about your feet.” Other approaches offer “self care” and “feelgood.” If you’ve just used an Oprah-approved body lotion and you feel good, you are virtuous. The decades since high school when I felt zero discomfort about my evil deed constitute a virtuous amnesia in this worldview.
If our system for addressing evil talks only about our subjective states of happiness, pleasure, or calm, it cannot address the evil deeds we commit with indifference, or the ones we justify to ourselves, or the ones we don’t even consciously recognize, or the evil that feels seductively good. A courageous and honest mechanism for dealing with evil has to fearlessly insist that the visceral pleasure we feel when beating up a weaker opponent, or watching S&M porn, is in fact a parasitic lifeform that feeds upon our best selves.
Evil, and subsequent guilt and shame, are inevitable waste products of the human experience. In that, evil deeds and guilt are comparable to bodily waste and garbage. A mechanism is required to deal with all these waste products. We need toilets and sewer systems. We need garbage collection. A competent mechanism for dealing with evil has to offer us a road to ablution and renewal. We have to find a way back to our best selves, even after our worst deeds. We need to channel evil and guilt in order for individuals and society to function. Otherwise, they would choke us. We would all be nothing more than our worst deeds. We would all have reason to hate each other in perpetuity.
Christophobes mock Christianity’s emphasis on forgiveness. I cherish Christianity’s emphasis on forgiveness. It allows me to live beyond having been the girl who committed that evil deed. In the same way that I want to be forgiven, I respect God’s insistence on forgiveness for others.
Catholicism provides a mechanism. Catholics are advised to perform an examination of conscience daily. Confession provides a penance and absolution.
When praying the first sorrowful mystery of the rosary, which commemorates Jesus in Gethsemane before his crucifixion, Catholics pray for “the gift of contrition.” For years I prayed that prayer and I could understand no reason for praying it. Why should I ask to feel “contrition” – that is, “the state of feeling remorseful and penitent”? Like every other self-absorbed malefactor, blinded by my own self-pity, along with Shakespeare’s King Lear, I insisted I was one “more sinned against than sinning.” I was somehow convinced that having been a victim in my life, which I certainly was, I didn’t also have the power to victimize others, which I certainly did.
When viewing the world through the “I’m the victim here” lens, I saw other human beings as merely beads on an abacus. I could slide these human beings, mere beads to me, into the “hurt” position to rectify my own account. I failed to recognize that those who abused me engaged in the exact same self-exculpating, ethical legerdemain. We all played our part in that perverse economics, that filthy cycle of, “Someone hurt me, so I can now pass on the pain to an innocent bystander.”
I didn’t want to ask to feel contrition, but, when praying that first sorrowful mystery of the rosary, I did. Though I felt no personal, emotional urge to pray this prayer, I asked because I am Catholic and I am invested in a system that values the wisdom of our ancestors in faith who have been working on ethical issues for millennia. They invited me to ask for “contrition” as a “gift,” and so I did. And, decades after my abuse of an innocent girl, either through God’s intervention or my own maturation, I finally realized that I had reason to feel contrition.
Not only the Judeo-Christian tradition offers the West a model for dealing with sin and redemption. Almost five centuries before Christ, Aeschylus told a Greek tale of sin, penance, and redemption. The god Apollo ordered Orestes to kill his mother, Clytemnestra, to avenge a murder she had committed. Orestes did so, but he was then tormented by Furies, phantom women with snakes for hair and bloody eyes. Matricidal Orestes wandered in solitary punishment for years. Afterwards, “I have been taught by misery,” he announced. Orestes returned to Athens and asked for a trial. Apollo announced that he, Apollo, was responsible for Clytemnestra’s murder. Orestes would have none of it. “I, not Apollo, was guilty of my mother’s murder.” The Furies that had tormented Orestes transformed into the Eumenides, beneficent protectors. Orestes acceptance of punishment, and admission of guilt, erased the age-old curse on his family, the House of Atreus. “Neither he nor any descendent of his would ever again be driven into evil by the irresistible power of the past.”
On Thursday, January 26, 2023, I began to notice media announcements that videorecordings of the arrest of a 29-year-old black man, Tyre Nichols, would be released at six p.m. on Friday, January 27. Nichols, media informed me, had died three days after a traffic stop in Memphis. I felt blasé. I wasn’t blasé about the death; I was blasé about media exploiting death in service to a leftist agenda. Even so, I felt it was my civic duty to watch the video.
After watching the Memphis video, I stared into space for several minutes. I warned my social media contacts to think long and hard about whether or not to watch it. What I saw on that video was five men beating one tall, thin man. The beating they delivered was certainly enough to kill. Nichols was six foot three but, because of Crohn’s disease, he weighed only 145 pounds.
Video shows Nichols being punched, kicked, pepper-sprayed, tazed, and beaten with a baton. Police bark orders. In fact they issued “71 Commands in 13 Minutes.” “Officers gave Tyre Nichols impossible … contradictory and unachievable orders … The punishment was severe – and eventually fatal.” While Nichols is pinned down by two police officers, another officer threatens, “Watch out, I’m going to baton the f— out of you.” One officer says, “That motherf—er made me spray myself.” The officer is thus announcing that, even as his colleagues beat a restrained man, he, the police officer participating in a brutal beating, is the real victim. Someone else, a man dehumanized through the expletive, “motherf—er” “made him” pepper spray himself. After Nichols is handcuffed, he is punched in the back of the head. He is so weak he can’t sit. Officers prop him up and do not deliver medical aid. An ambulance arrives over twenty minutes after officers announce that Nichols is in custody.
The beating appears not to have been delivered in an uncontrollable frenzy. Officers walk away, walk back, assault Nichols, stop, and restart. Officers chat about whether they pepper-sprayed themselves in the eye or the eyebrow. “I hope they stomp his ass,” says an officer who is not engaged in any struggle with Nichols. The officer who kicks Nichols in the head and punches him in the face has just arrived on the scene. The officer who beats Nichols in the back is also a recent arrival. Once Nichols is propped up, officers fist bump each other and pat each other on the back. They laugh.
Five men on one. Five heavily armed policemen participating in the beating of an unarmed citizen who is restrained and can’t defend himself. Five officers of the peace not offering medical aid to a human body that is clearly in extremis. These videos record evil. Afterward, police filed a false report. Evil demands more evil; lies to protect the guilty and slander the innocent dead.
The five officers who have been charged with “second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression” are Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith. In their biographies, one reads of men loved and respected by friends and family. In their professional photos one sees handsome, proud men. They are all black.
In recent years, American life has been focused on the accusation that there is an epidemic of white police officers shooting unarmed black men to death for no reason other than white supremacy. This accusation has dramatically changed American sports, relationships, work life, education, politics, and religious activity.
One might think that the death of Tyre Nichols, allegedly at the hands of five black men, would make it impossible for activists to revert to that narrative. That is not the case. In fact prominent voices are indeed insisting that Tyre Nichols’ real killer was white supremacy.
National Public Radio’s Sunday morning host, Ayesha Rascoe, an African American woman, featured a broadcast on “How Black People Can Cope with the Trauma of Witnessing Repeated Death and Violence against Them.” Note that in Rascoe’s narrative, black people are not committing acts of violence against anyone. Black people are always and only the victims of racist violence committed by whites.
In the broadcast, guest Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capuia, from Harvard Medical School, supports Rascoe’s narrative. “All human beings require safety.” Dr. Moreland-Capuia says. But black people in America can never be safe.
“It’s unsustainable,” Rascoe says. “How are black people surviving?”
“Many folks are hanging on by a thread,” Moreland-Capuia replies. Black people face “microaggressions” from white racists. Because of this, black people have shorter lifespans.
“How can we cope with the trauma?” Rascoe asks.
“Take the time just to do some breathing,” Moreland-Capuia offers a “moment of zen” solution.
In another broadcast, Rascoe chats with novelist Nick Brooks. “Systems,” she insists, control black people’s behavior. If black people treat other black people badly, Rascoe and Brooks insist, white supremacy is ultimately to blame.
Brooks blames any bad behavior from black people on “generational trauma” caused by “America, whiteness, and the patriarchy.” White supremacy is also responsible for child abuse in black households. “You can literally trace that all the way back to the plantation or something … The toxic traits that we have are a reflection of the position we’ve been put in. The [black] kids are not inherently bad. The people aren’t inherently bad,” Brooks says.
On Meet the Press on January 29, 2023, Yamiche Alcindor declared that fear and outrage at the Nichols’ arrest video was the exclusive property of black people “Black families are waking up this morning traumatized and are worried about sending their children out in the street. Black men are driving cars and hoping they don’t get pulled over. People that are pregnant [note that Alcindor does not say ‘pregnant women’] with Black boys are worried right now that they could ever see their child that they’ve made for nine months be killed in a matter of minutes because of this. I don’t know that people see this, the people that are most impacted by this, which I will say, frankly, are Black people.”
On This Week, Martha Raddatz helped the attorney Ben Crump identify “racial bias” as the cause of the “the brutality, the profanity, the lack of humanity” exhibited in the video. The New York Times insisted that “all the way back to the origin of law enforcement in this country … is a history rooted in slave patrols and militias designed to protect white people’s lives and livelihoods from rebellion among enslaved Black people.” And “America has once again failed Black people who were pleading for help and demanding it. America should be ashamed.”
Democratic Congressman Maxwell Frost, son of a Haitian father, tweeted that “The murder of Tyre Nichols is anti-Black and the result of white supremacy.” CNN’s Van Jones wrote that Nichols’ death was “driven by racism.” The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill tweeted, “The entire system of policing is based on white supremacist violence.” “White Supremacy Killed Tyre Nichols,” insisted John Pavlovitz. “Black police officers can be just as implicated in the violent white supremacy of policing as can officers who are not Black,” said The Guardian. WNYC, New York City’s NPR affiliate, hosted a program Monday morning dedicated to insisting that Tyre Nichols was a victim of white supremacy, and that police brutality is a problem affecting only “black and brown” people. In a CNN interview, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, himself a black man and a former police officer, said that even though Nichols’ assailants were black, “race is still on the table of when a culture of policing historically has treated those from different groups differently, even when the individuals are from that same group.” Mayor Adams offered this insight, “Abusive behavior creates abuse.” And on and on. Mainstream media exerted excessive force: one must acknowledge that white supremacy was behind the death of Tyre Nichols.
FOX news presented an alternative point of view. Ben Jealous, former president and CEO of the NAACP, mentioned that whites as well as blacks have been brutalized and killed by police. He also said that changing the skin color of police doesn’t improve policing. He said that, rather, those who hire police must attend to “authoritarian personality types” who are more likely to abuse. Jealous has been stressing this point for years. After the death of George Floyd, Jealous said, “Talk to criminologist after criminologist, you look at the officers who are most likely to pull the trigger, what they may or may not have in common is racism or implicit bias. What they all seem to have in common is high levels of authoritarianism.”
Leftists are exploiting the Memphis atrocity to support well-worn planks of the Black Lives Matter platform. All of those BLM planks are lies that harm black people. There is no epidemic of white police murdering unarmed black men without any mitigating circumstances. See here, here, and here. In fact many of BLM’s proof cases involve non-white officers, for example Sergeant Kizzy Adoni, a black woman who supervised the arrest of Eric Garner; black officers who participated in the arrest of Freddy Gray; non-white Jeronimo Yanez, who shot Philando Castile to death during a traffic stop; non-white Tou Nmn Thao and J. Alexander Kueng, who participated in and were charged after the arrest and death of George Floyd. Derek Chauvin was married to a non-white woman and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, himself a black Muslim, said that he found no evidence that Derek Chauvin was a racist who acted in a racist way toward George Floyd. “We don’t have any evidence that Derek Chauvin factored in George Floyd’s race as he did what he did.”
It’s not true that whites are never victimized in the way that blacks are. See Justine Ruszczyk, a white woman murdered by black Muslim police officer Mohamed Noor; Tony Timpa, a white man who died after being restrained by a diverse group of police, including at least one black cop and one Hispanic cop, none of whom were found guilty; Timothy Coffman; and Daniel Shaver. The video of Shaver is as difficult to watch as is the Memphis video. Astoundingly, the officer who shot Shaver dead was found not guilty. John McWhorter, himself black, acknowledges that whites, too, have been brutalized and killed by bad cops.
It’s not true that all deaths of blacks in custody can be accurately subsumed into the narrative of the killer cop whose only possible motive is white supremacy. Michael Brown, for example, was a physically imposing young man who had just committed a violent crime, and was struggling with an officer, trying to get the officer’s gun. Rather than telling this true account, the “Hands up; don’t shoot” “gentile giant” fairy tale was invented.
It’s not true that white supremacy is the only possible reason for a difficult relationship between blacks and police. See this report by the U.S. Department of Justice. Blacks commit a significantly higher proportion of violent crime. Anti-social behavior, as acknowledged by black scholars including John Ogbu, John McWhorter, and Orlando Patterson, is celebrated and encouraged in an “oppositional” black subculture. The victims of violent crimes committed by blacks are often themselves black. Statistics suggest that in one age bracket, young black men are twenty-two times more likely to be shot to death than young white men.
It’s not true that white police officers are an occupying army in majority minority communities. I have lived and worked most of my life in majority-minority communities. For the most part, police are simply not around, but black people would like them to be. “Blacks want police to retain local presence,” reported Gallup in 2020.
I see crime everyday. Drug deals, drug use, physical fights, dangerous and illegal driving, threats, noise, dumping not just of litter but of used televisions and toxic substances, public defecation, prostitution, child abuse, animal abuse and abandonment, and arson, are among the daily sights. Most often I see no police intervention. I have seen police-community interactions, from murder investigations to police handling junkies who have overdosed. Police have clearly been trained to deescalate tensions.
As a white woman living in a majority-minority neighborhood I have been physically assaulted numerous times. Once, I was almost killed. Ironically my assailants were targeting each other; I had unwittingly stepped between warring gangs of young black men. I called police, waited three hours for an officer to arrive, only for him to tell me that “You should not be living in this neighborhood.” There were ample witnesses. No action was taken. My neighbor, a short, elderly white man, was cold-cocked by a young black male. The elderly white victim called police. No action was taken. The “military occupation” myth is believable only by BLM’s strongest demographic, rich, white liberals who never set foot in majority-minority neighborhoods.
Laser focus on the racist-white-cop / helpless-black-victim narrative is a cynical, manipulative, power play. Leftists want to undermine American society for their own reasons, reasons that have nothing to do with uplifting black people. Leftists lie. America, right now, is the best place on earth to be black. Universities, professions, sports, the arts, desperately want black participation and black advancement. Entire university and corporate departments are dedicated to finding, funding, and mentoring tomorrow’s black achievers in every field. That leftists encourage blacks to cower in fear and to believe that only a Marxist revolution can rescue them from the evil white man is a national tragedy.
Leftists’ lack of real concern for blacks is evident in response to the Memphis video. Streets are calm. Social media response is muted. Why? Nichols was beaten by black cops. If Nichols had been beaten by white cops, America’s streets would look like the mouth of the Kilauea Volcano. Rioters, looters, and arsonists, as they did after the Floyd video, would hit their marks, not motivated by love for black people, but by hate for a perceived enemy tribe.
As I watched the Memphis video, I thought of Derrion Albert. In 2009, sixteen-year-old Derrion, an honors student, was walking home in Chicago when he was beaten to death on camera. His teenage assailants’ weapon of choice were railroad ties, applied with force to Derrion’s skull. Onlookers filmed the beating; you can see it on the web. Black boys beat an innocent black boy to death because their victim was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As I watched the Memphis video, I thought of being twenty-two years old, teaching high school in the South Bronx. A black student misbehaved. I reported him. Later, one of his parents arrived, called him to the front of the room, pulled down his pants, and beat his exposed buttocks with a belt in front of the class. No doubt that parent thought that he was doing the right thing.
I thought of one of my forebears, an immigrant coal miner. He was ambushed one night and beaten with boards with nails in them. His assailants were what my relative, who would later find the body, called “Johnny Bulls,” that is, “English, Irish, Scotch, and Welsh.”
I thought of my fellow Poles, some of whom, during the Holocaust and after, committed atrocities against Jews.
I thought of my mother telling me that one night she went out looking for my father, who had gotten drunk. He was lying in the street, and police were kicking my helpless father in his stomach.
And I thought about what I did to that girl in high school.
I thought of the problem of evil.
I don’t know what reform would prevent another beating like the one we see on the Memphis video. Of course it’s obvious that the denigration of all police in the past three years has drastically reduced the number and quality of applicants for police positions. At the same time, departments have been pressured to accept “diverse” applicants and, in response to this pressure, unsuitable diverse applicants become police; see here. We can’t demand better police at the same time that we demonize police.
I know this much. Evil is universal and inescapable. Like bodily waste, like garbage, evil and subsequent guilt are inevitable byproducts of human life. They must be dealt with so that society does not choke on them.
The Judeo-Christian tradition offers mechanisms for dealing with evil and guilt, and ways for individuals to be less likely to commit evil with a sense of impunity, and more likely to be rehabilitated after inevitable lapses. As that tradition wanes, society struggles for new ways to address evil. Many have chosen to revert to the pre-Christian concept of tribal identification as a measure of vice or virtue. “My tribe good; your tribe bad.” The BLM narrative fully supports tribalism. Blacks are innocent victims; whites are brutal oppressors who never experience injustice. Even when the fist, the taser, the baton, the railroad tie, are wielded by blacks attacking blacks, whites must be singled out as the perpetrator. This insistence robs blacks of agency. Someone who cannot be responsible for his own actions will always be a child. In this case, only white leftists are allowed the privilege of adulthood, even an adulthood tainted with guilt. At least whites are not children.
John Pavlovitz, the above-linked leftist Christian pastor, in his blog post addressing the Memphis video, works very hard to prove that it was in fact white people who killed Tyre Nichols. “Circuitous miles of pipes” bring water to our faucets. The black officers who beat Nichols are merely “the spigot.” “White supremacy is the plumbing.” Pavlovitz is the white leftist who gets to be an adult, and blacks get to be, perpetually, Pavlovitz’s helpless children.
Pastor Pavlovitz, it’s a shame that you don’t realize how contemptuous you are of black people. It’s a shame that you don’t realize how ego-driven your “Christian” writing is. You want to be seen as the savior of blacks, and for you to be big enough to be the savior of all blacks, you must make black people very, very small.
Pastor Pavlovitz, when I was sixteen, I committed an evil deed. And that’s all I need to say. Following your template, I could talk about what it was like for me to be an abused kid. I could talk about the hundreds of years of oppression of my peasant ancestors in Eastern Europe, about how the word “slave” entered Arabic and European languages because we, Slavs, were their property. But I don’t want to do that. I did a bad thing. Me. Not Viking or Muslim slave traders, not Czars, not Soviets, not Nazis, not coal mine owners, not my parents, not the kids who called me “fat and retarded.” No. It was I. I had a choice not to do a bad thing, or to do a bad thing. I chose the latter. I am guilty. I am, finally, ashamed. I confess. I ask God for forgiveness, absolution, and to be a better person from this moment forward. Every human being deserves that much respect – to be expected to be responsible for their own freely made choices, including the choice to commit evil. And every human being, having been given that choice, has the next choice. To perform the process necessary for redemption.
Tyre Nichols was a joyful, enthusiastic photographer. See his images here.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.