President Donald Trump uttered a single word on Tuesday that perfectly framed the slaughter that targeted Ariana Grande concertgoers in Manchester, England: Evil.
That’s the word that the president brandished to describe the suicide bomber who packed his explosive, and timed his attack, to inflict mortal damage on the young concertgoers, many of them in their early teens.
“So many young, beautiful, innocent people living and enjoying their lives, murdered by evil losers,” Trump said.
It is the perfect characterization of this attack. Elemental. A thunderbolt with sharp edges and no doubt about its accuracy. Look at the photos of those young girls, bloodied, shrieking, screaming for their parents. The word fits.
The evil that lurked in the Manchester bomber is the same that motivated a cell of terrorists who murdered scores of people in Paris, or the one who rampaged through an Orlando nightclub, or those who set off explosions in Boston and Brussels, or rammed a truck into crowds of celebrants on Bastille Day in Nice, France …
The list goes on. And the next plots are already taking shape.
For many parents the understandable impulse may be to downplay the danger, lest their child grow anxious. Could it happen here?
The truth is not comforting.
How to explain evil, not the garden-variety kind but the capital E kind practiced by Islamic State, the kind that doesn’t view innocent civilians as collateral damage but as soft targets to be exploited to pile up a maximum death toll?
Scientists have long tried to trace the genesis of human evil, to fathom the unfathomable. What role, for instance, does childhood trauma play? Bad parenting? Religious indoctrination or, conversely, a religious void? Genetics? What researchers know is that many people share similar experiences and genetic traits but don’t become terrorists, don’t commit heinous acts of evil.
Years ago in a symposium titled “Understanding Evil,” a group of psychiatrists, authors and professional evil-studiers gathered in Texas. They invoked the touchstones of evil, and named names from Hitler to Manson, Stalin to Pol Pot. They talked about slavery. Child abuse. Bullies. The Inquisition.
One intriguing thought came from then-Texas Monthly editor Gregory Curtis, who explained evil’s seductive appeal. “Evil accepts us,” he said. “It does not require us to improve no matter how great our faults. You are what you are, evil says, and in fact if you want to, you can go ahead and be worse.”
Some people may shrink from this word because they’ve been taught that no one is pure evil, just as no one is pure good. That people do things for complicated reasons.
But evil is the right word to describe the Manchester bombing. It should be wielded like a dagger every time a terrorist strikes.
You don’t need to know the bomber’s name or his twisted spiel or whether he did this for the greater glory of Islamic State. Trump said he wouldn’t empower terrorists by labeling them “monsters because they would like that term, they would think that is a great name. I will call them, from now on, losers, because that’s what they are: They’re losers.”
We don’t care to calculate how this evil stacks up against other terror acts, other atrocities, greater tolls of wars and genocides. Every act of evil, no matter the death toll, is equivalent at its merciless core.
Today, parents in Manchester mourn their dead. Tomorrow, we hope, the terrorists will mourn theirs.
This we know: Evil cannot be wiped off the Earth. But Islamic State can be.