Of Many Things

On Nov. 29 a federal bankruptcy judge liquidated Hostess Brands, longtime enemy of the nation’s waistline. The purveyor of the Twinkie was a victim of the country’s changing tastes. Americans, Hostess said, are more health conscious than they used to be.

By sheer coincidence Hostess Brands shut down its operations 34 years to the week after the disgruntled San Francisco supervisor Dan White assassinated Mayor George Moscone and a fellow city supervisor, Harvey Milk, the latter the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. At his trial, Mr. White’s lawyers devised what has come to be known as the “Twinkie defense.” The defendant, the jury was told, was not in his right mind at the time of the killings; the recent influx of homosexuals and hippies into his previously decorous, respectable, middle-class city, his lawyers argued, had left Mr. White severely depressed. A dramatic upsurge in White’s Twinkie consumption, they said, both indicated and accelerated his slide into temporary insanity. The jury was sympathetic; they chose to convict White on two counts of manslaughter rather than the more serious charge of premeditated murder.

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The Twinkie defense had worked. Or had it? Many people believe that a better explanation for the verdict is that the jury just didn’t want to believe that White, an “all-American boy”—a good Catholic, family man, veteran and former firefighter who had once rescued a mom and her baby from a burning building—could be the same man who had executed two of their neighbors with malice aforethought. He must have just snapped, they reasoned. The jury’s willing disbelief seems like the better explanation.

This is related to what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil:” We’d rather not believe that an ordinary someone, someone we know, could do something so extraordinarily evil. Yet that is almost always the way it happens. Just a few days ago, Jovan Belcher, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, shot and killed his girlfriend and then himself. Ruben Marshall, a family friend, remarked: “I didn’t want to believe it. He was a good man. A good, loving father, a family man.” One of Belcher’s teammates said, “There was nothing about him that seemed abnormal.... What could have caused him to do that?”

Good question. Why? Why do the Egyptian Salafists kill the Coptic Christians, as David Pinault reports in this week’s issue? Why did Cain kill Abel? Ultimately, of course, we don’t know the answers. Such questions belong to the inaptly named “problem” of evil. Evil is not a problem; it’s a mystery. Perhaps that is what is most unsettling about it. If evil were a problem, it would be something “out there,” something we could analyze and possibly solve. As a mystery, however, evil is not so easily objectified. Indeed, as mystery, evil is a drama in which we are the subjects, the actors rather than the spectators. And yet there is something terrifyingly predictable, even boring about this drama. The characters know the difference between good and bad, and yet they do the bad things anyway, over and over. Much like those Twinkies, I suppose—we all knew they were bad for us; we ate them anyway.

The Good News, with a capital G and a capital N, however, is that Christians know that evil will not endure forever, that our world, to answer the question posed by Richard Clifford, S.J., in this issue (p. 17), is not “fated to end in terror and panic.” Christ has already won the victory over evil. Today, as always, we simply pray for the faith and the courage to live in the painful yet beautiful moment between his first and second comings. As of last week, we’ll have to do that without Ho Hos, Twinkies and Ding Dongs. No need to worry though. We’ve been through worse together.
 

This column has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 7, 2012

An earlier version of this column misidentified the nature of the relationship between Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher and the person he shot. Kasandra Perkins was his girlfriend, not his wife.
 

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4 years 10 months ago
What a relief!  Perhaps I've thought it before i.e. " Evil is not a problem; it’s a mystery, " but just never had it strike me as so simply true.  Moreover I think that engaging the mystery of evil can only be done by engaging other mysteries.  Here I would say that mysteries (sacraments) of forgiveness and healing come into play.  Evil being a mystery must also be balanced by an image of good as a mystery.  God who is good is a mystery.

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