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Jack Zaleski, Published July 14 2012

Zaleski: Can we see the evil in horrific murders?

We in the media don’t talk much about evil. The word seems to carry too much baggage – religious and social – and therefore frequently is avoided for fear of offending. Indeed, there is not much said about evil from the pulpits of mainline Christian churches. After all, preachers want to keep the pews filled, and suggesting that some members of the flock are either evil or easily influenced by evil is not good marketing.

“Evil” in the classic biblical sense came to mind last week while reading about the father from Minot, N.D., who killed his three young daughters in River Falls, Wis. Yes, by our laws he’s innocent until proven guilty, but the statements he made to his former wife and evidence released by authorities leave no doubt about what he did. He murdered the girls, ages 11, 8 and 5, by cutting their throats and strangulation. Then he called his ex-wife and said, “You can come home now because I killed the kids.” He surrendered to police shortly after.

Does it get any worse than that? When I read the horrific particulars of the story, only profound sadness held back rage. What could cause a father to perpetrate such an awful crime?

To be sure, the voices of mercy and tolerance will speak up about the man’s mental health. Surely anyone who kills his children is crazy – not in control of his mental and emotional faculties, and therefore not culpable, they will say. Or maybe this: He had a bad childhood; his father beat him; his mother was cold and distant. Therefore, the excuse-makers will conclude he grew to adulthood unable to function sanely.

How about this unpopular view: He’s just plain evil. He’s a calculating monster who intended to punish his ex-wife by killing the kids. He succumbed to the darkest, most selfish, most violent instincts in the human soul and made a premeditated choice. He chose evil.

The nature of his act revealed human depravity and wickedness of the sort that defines evil, whether in traditional scriptural terms or by a secular understanding of immorality. He should not get a pass because “he must be crazy.” Not every criminal – every murderer – is crazy, even if most of us can’t see sanity in a murderer who kills his own children.

Maybe we just need to acknowledge evil. Maybe society should quit trying to understand and excuse acts so heinous they defy psychological analyses and social science’s cause-and-effect explanations. The man who killed his children in Wisconsin did a very bad thing. He’s a bad man. By any definition, evil was at work.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.