It’s only been a few hours since the young man responsible for the recent campaign of bombs in the Austin area has blown himself up as the SWAT team descended upon him. Already, the narrative developing around him has taken a familiar turn: neighbors describe him as a “nice kid,” whose parents are shocked at bewildered, and who showed no signs of radicalization prior to the violence he committed. We saw a bit of this with Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year old shooter who killed 17 people at a high school in the Parkland, Florida shooting several weeks ago. We saw it with Brock Turner, the Stanford swimming student caught in the act of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. The Las Vegas shooter received the grown-up form of this treatment. I could go on. In the end, the narrative emerges that the individual was deeply, troublingly human, and this somehow mitigates their culpability because we can identify with them. If we can identify them, that somehow de-radicalizes them: they weren’t beholden to a toxic or violence point of view – they were just troubled, and their actual beliefs don’t mean much.
The Austin bombing suspect was a quiet, “nerdy” young man who came from a “tight-knit, godly family,” said Donna Sebastian Harp, who had known the family for nearly 18 years https://t.co/psiAniAMuK
— The New York Times (@nytimes) March 21, 2018
We want to believe this, because their beliefs (and their identities) don’t seem so far off from our own. They’re not monsters. We identify with their parents and their grandmothers who don’t know what happened, where they went wrong, and now they’ve lost their child and that child’s innocence in one fell swoop. Exactly how social pathologies operate, however, isn’t exactly as dramatic as we expect it to be. We live in an age of mass shootings and domestic terrorism, but we’re clueless about how these things arise because of things we see around us every day. We’re painfully unable to understand the violence of our society, because we’re obstinately unwilling to probe the pathologies of our society.
That Conditt was white has everything to do with this. That Conditt was also male and of a Christian background also has everything to do with this. We can’t imagine him as a terrorist, because the category of “terrorist” itself has, socially and in jurisprudence, always been meant to be a deflective category for the Other. Mark Anthony Conditt cannot be a terrorist because he’s not “Other.” We can’t dehumanize him. And yet, we can’t possibly see how the way he thinks and the actions he’s taken has anything to do with the lives, beliefs, and reality that we ourselves inhabit. He was “mentally ill.” He was “disturbed.” He was “troubled.”
It’s precisely because I’ve known so many people like Mark Anthony Conditt that I want us to take a good look at the social pathologies that animated his murderous decisions over the last several weeks. How did his whiteness, his Christian faith, his maleness, all the things that made him “normal” contribute to his decision to end the lives of two people and attempt to end the lives of several more? There’s a clue in an old blog post he made in 2012 condemning homosexuality, calling it “unnatural.” That argument arises from the politics of normality. All these accounts, including childhood friends, describe him as painstakingly normal (never mind that in my world, survivalist communities teaching kids to use and carry knives, and recreationally shoot guns isn’t exactly normal). He was a “nice kid.”
Exploring the “banality of evil” isn’t a new phenomenon. The phrase itself comes from Hannah Arendt, a Jewish social theorist and philosopher who covered the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1962. Disturbed by the “normality” he seemed to present, Arendt proposed that we radically reassess our assumptions about moral responsibility, and understand evil itself as an inability to “think” – which is an exercise of intentionality, deliberative agency, and theo-ethical reflection. Not thinking is what’s normal. Because so few people think, evil becomes banal. And despite his friend’s and acquaintance’s accounts of Conditt being a “deep thinker,” it’s very clear that at the very least theo-ethical reflection, as a form of thinking, is conspicuously absent in the proceedings of these murders.
Maybe it’s time that we stark taking stock of the insight that “normal” and “nice” are themselves violent categories. It’s not just that what’s normal happens to lack theo-ethical reflection, but that a lack of theo-ethical reflection is exactly what makes something normal to begin with. Conditt was “normal,” as was Stephen Haddock, Brock Turner, Elliott Rodger, Craig Stephen Hicks, and Michael David Dunn, to name a few. They all had in common their race, sex, and an orientation toward the Other based on hostility and a self-assumed privilege. Hostility toward the Other has emerged as the greatest social pathology of our time, based on the fear that the Other is an existential threat to ourselves and our world. We have not only rejected love of neighbor, we have rejected our neighbor itself in a nihilistic, murderous mindset that sees only those close to oneself worth loving, that finds no basis or concern for caring about other people. We can call these murderous men “normal” because we share that underlying hostility and fail to see how it lies at the foundation of this violence itself.
The mindset that compelled Conditt and other murderously “normal” people arose from a complex set of social, ethical, cultural, and political realities that can take armies of scholars, clinicians, and social professionals to unravel. But in the end, our response to it shows that we’re just as implicated in that same mindset. While few of us are going to go out and bomb, shoot, or rape our neighbor, we are still beholden to the imagination by which our neighbor threatens our identity, existence, and integrity. And until we can take ourselves to task for this as communities and individuals, “nice kids” are going to continue murdering their neighbors.