September 30, 1999
On Blaming Evil
On a beautiful Sunday morning before Yom Kippur, my friend Diane and I took a walk down the bikeway near the beach. I was just thinking how peaceful and clean the old honky-tonk neighborhood near Venice seemed when Diane flinched.
"Did you hear that? That guy muttered, 'Let's kill all the broads.' "
I had not heard it, but we both felt a chill. Two successful career women used to feeling our personal power suddenly felt a wild man's threat against our gender. What should be done: Do we tell the police? Do we tell his neighbors? Do we investigate whether the man, who appeared to be a drifter, had a gun somewhere?
We were on a slippery slope, and now we were walking fast, away from the distressed man, fleeing the source of our fear.
With our distance, we widened our concern. In a flash, Diane and I could name a half-dozen places where we habitually congregated. Any one of them might be prone to an unpredictable attack from a lone, insane gunman with a grievance. Would we really stop going to movies or synagogue, a Starbucks or a library or civic group? That seemed like overreacting. But still, in this, our new era of anonymous terror, we were not so paranoid at all.
In the aftermath of the Fort Worth, Texas, shooting of seven young Baptist students in prayer, the terrain of fear has changed. We in the Jewish community, who spent much of this summer evaluating whether we were being targeted for a new round of anti-Semitism, have been shorn of our special status. True, there are too many white supremacist groups teaching a catechism of resentment, but there are, it seems, also lone gunmen who have lost their jobs or marbles, been cheated in love or the stock market, or are just off medication. Envy and resentment, after all, are not aimed only at us.
Asked what could be done about the current round of white men's violence, George W. Bush, probable Republican nominee for president, responded that nothing much could be done. "There is a wave of evil passing through America," he said.
After my walk with my friend on the bike path, I re-examined Bush's comments, wondering where evil stops, and where it ends. Throughout this summer, I have been in conversation with attorneys, spiritual leaders and activists about what can be done. And, sadly, I've received little in the way of hope.
When I've suggested using organized crime statutes against hate churches, a civil liberties attorney reminded me that an invasive government was at least as bad as a government that lets dangerous men roam free. From a surprising number of activists, I heard that no gun law would stop another Buford Furrow from attacking yet another JCC -- he had his guns illegally.
In response, I've gone back to basics, to establish a bottom line of evil. Here's what I've learned: Jews take the study of evil seriously and, as you might expect, there's a whole cosmology that explains why evil occurs and what should be done about it.
A wonderful Jewish myth holds that evil comes to earth via five "fallen angels." Each of these messengers, perhaps not surprisingly, is named after a form of anger.
Aph (Hebrew for nose) is the mildest level of evil; the personal, silent anger and the reddened face that comes from being slighted or shamed. A sexist or racist joke, perhaps, or an accusation like, "Do you still beat your wife?"
Chemah (Hebrew for heat) is the next level up; an anger that might result in a person writing an angry letter to the editor, or telling off his boss. Or filing for divorce.
Ketzeph, however, is full-blooded rage, in which a personality snaps or breaks down. Buford Furrow at the JCC, or Larry Gene Ashbrook in Fort Worth, were beyond rationale, or normal action. And because they were armed, their crimes against anonymous victims of their anger were more than mere personal acts of shame or violence, but ripped at society's threads.
That's why the highest levels of evil concern not the angry perpetrators, but the neighborhood, group or society that does not respond to evil in its midst. That does not take evil seriously.
Mashcith is the evil that occurs in neighborhoods, cultures and societies, among people who should know and care about each other, e.g., the Fort Worth neighbors who avoided Larry Gene Ashbrook's gaze fearing that he could only do them harm.
Mechalleh is about the rest of us and what we are afraid to do. Mechalleh is literally "pollution," the final stage of evil, like that in the Biblical city of Sodom, when no one feels brave enough to engage, powerful enough to act. It comes when people who can act stand by numb and blame the "wave of evil" on others, as if we are innocents, helpless to do anything about it.
In the weeks and months to come, we will be hearing and talking about specific gun laws and specific surveillance techniques. We will be at each others' throats, as if we can really choose between safety and privacy, responsibility and freedom. The real challenge is to redefine the goal, which is the resurrection of our community and neighborhoods as sources of caring, and the belief in the neighborhood's right to its own survival.
My friend Diane and I came close to evil that Yom Kippur day, and ran from it like hell.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, will speak at the Jewish Day School Expo on Thursday, Oct. 7 at Milken High School.
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.