When True Evil Rises Before Us

Matt Emerson’s piece this week looks at the horrifying ordeal of the Petit family, and ponders what faith provides when pure evil breaks into our lives.

If you need a refresher, this is the story:

The terror began after two long-time criminals, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, broke into the Petit home. After finding Dr. Petit, they battered him with a baseball bat, bound his hand and feet, and dumped him in the bottom of the home. They raped Mrs. Petit and 11 year-old Michaela.

When morning arrived, Hayes and Komisarjevsky drove Mrs. Petit to the bank and forced her to withdraw $15,000. After returning to the home, they strangled Mrs. Petit, tied Hayley and Michaela to their beds, poured gasoline on their bodies, and set the house on fire. Hayley and Michaela passed out from smoke inhalation before being touched by the inferno. Dr. Petit, crippled and unsteady from the baseball bat, dragged himself out of the basement shortly before his family’s home became a forest of flame.

Pondering this, Matt struggles with the sometimes glib responses we give to matters of light and darkness, good and evil:

I teach at an institution whose unofficial motto, invoked often, is that “God is always already at work in our lives.” I tell my students that God loves them, watches over them, has a plan for them. Everyone is made, I tell them, imago dei: in the image and likeness of God.

But when my thoughts drift to the Petits and to their holocaust, my certainties vanish. The darkness has not overcome it—right? Deus caritas est—right? Propositions that sustain my soul, and which I optimistically impart to my students, lose their obviousness. [...] The lowest evil is like the highest love: it is mystery. We try in vain to solve it, and it is not our place. Our mission is something much different precisely because faith is not like mathematics. We are called, of course, to pray for the sufferer. But more fundamentally we are called, even in our poverty of experience and empathy, to be with the sufferer, in the words of Pope Benedict, to “take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also.”

One of those pieces you want to read and then re-read, possibly with a drink by your side, or a dog.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • http://www.bannonoceanart.com Bill Bannon

        Permit me to be non philosophical.  I caught a breaking and entering criminal back in October having chased him from my house and I being 6’3″ and very strong almost broke and entered him and I got our things back….but the NY harbor police later were very “pastoral” with me for admitting that I had stretched the letter of the law….”..you did what you had to do” one noted.  Due to inheritance and a bad housing market, we have two houses….one in pristine suburbs and one on the NY harbor ( of yes….we render to Caesar alright quarterly).  But neither location is safe from criminals really….the suburb had a worker arrive to clean a deck and he ended up raping and murdering the lone woman who was home.  That’s a worse incident than our city location had.

       ID Discovery TV yesterday had the case of a trucker with a wife and two daughters who became a serial killer who would stop his 18 wheeler in the nicest looking suburban towns and hunt people at night within their houses with a commando knife and slit their throat then vanish on America’s highways based on a DVD he had… called “Hunting Humans”.  The towns look so quaint and historical and had no endemic poor crime areas.
        Lesson.  Get a tactical shotgun which actually is safer than other guns vis a vis your neighbors while being the most deadly against the criminal.  That is to say, Federal company makes shotshells for home defense that will kill the criminal better than a 44 magnum but which will lose lethal force as far as a stray missed shot continuing to your neighbor’s house….the multiple pellets spread and lose momentum exponentially quicker than a 44 magnum.  Keep it locked away from children but near to you.  Since Dr. Petit wanted the death penalty for these men, I’m sure he has anger at his own choice of not having one ready to be used.  Have your local precinct teach you your state’s rules of engagement ( do what I say not what I do).  If an intruder is unarmed, your state may require you to yell “freeze and lay down”.  If the person advances toward you, shoot him because they are angling to grab your barrel probably, while making small talk.  You females, learn that talk is their way of disarming you as they move.  Shoot them while their talking and moving toward you…never respond verbally.  Watch Lifetime for Women dramas to see how it’s not done.

  • Joseph Marshall

    After a good lunch and upon reflection, there is a little more I think can be said.

    When Benedict became Pope, I made some effort to track down and read his writings as Cardinal Ratzinger. One thing that struck me especially was his view of inter-religious dialog.

    In his view, the first thing any Catholic has to say in any such dialog is: The doctrines of the Catholic Church are true and all other doctrines, including Buddhism, are in error.

    To which I can only respond: Well, Your Holiness, this comes as no surprise to us. If you didn’t think the Catholic view is true, you wouldn’t be the Pope, now would you? We happen to think Buddhism is true. That’s why we’re Buddhist. So what would you like to talk about next?

    What he did talk about next, though not directly to me, was what Herr So-and-so [who isn't Buddhist] had to say in some German tome or other about Herr So-and-so’s insight into what Buddhism is “really about”. Benedict’s direct quotations from Herr So-and-so included no reference to any Buddhist texts or any contemporary writings by the Buddhist scholars who are the equivalent of contemporary Christian theologians. Nor did Benedict himself quote them directly. Unfortunately, my German is probably not up to reading Herr So-and-so in the original so I can’t tell if they are quoted somewhere else there.

    Benedict went on to say that when you know what Buddhism is “really about”, it is obviously false because of x, y, and z.

    If this were said directly to me, I would have to reply to this: That’s very revealing. The monastic Khenpo’s I have listened to about Buddhist sutras, shastras, and tantras, didn’t happen to mention any of that. Maybe I should try to find a translation of Herr So-and so to examine his views in more detail. It might help elucidate my daily Buddhist practice. So what else would you like to talk about?

    Benedict went on to assert that since the Church’s doctrines are true, Catholic faith must inevitably result in true “knowledge” of the spiritual, despite Immanuel Kant’s refutation of this in the Critique of Pure Reason.

    At this point my only response to this would have to be: Well, Your Holiness, this is truly getting out of my depth. It’s been a couple of decades since I’ve read Kant, and I’ve found very little in Buddhism that appears to echo Kant’s doctrines. I’ll have to go back and review his arguments and continue this interfaith dialog with you later. It will be very interesting to hear your analysis of why Kant’s premises are false and his reasoning flawed.

    Now I have read a great deal about Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, including virtually all of Chesterton’s writings on the subject. In fact, you would not believe the trouble I had to go through in the 1980s to obtain a copy of The Everlasting Man. Hopefully, it’s more accessible now. I recognized your quotations immediately, but am too far from those days to place them by book.

    I’ve dipped into Augustine, struggled some with Acquinas, and even worked my way through Cardinal Newman, who I must say was not nearly as much fun a conversion to read about as Chesterton’s, or Thomas Merton’s.

    This is still rather sketchy and, although I think Buddhism is true, I don’t have any direct knowledge of Christian experience, and I really don’t think I’m in any position to reasonably assert that any of it is false. Your comments, and others, are splendidly candid about these things and I really appreciate them. They open up the experience of Christian belief wonderfully. And I look forward to reading more from you about it.

  • James

    (Joseph said – “In his view, the first thing any Catholic has to say in any such dialog is: The doctrines of the Catholic Church are true and all other doctrines, including Buddhism, are in error.”)

    That’s a very limited and an inaccurately exclusive view of Catholicism towards other faiths Joseph.

    From the Catechism:

    843 The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as “a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.”332

    As for Kant: The conclusion of “Can Kant’s Ethics Survive His Metaphysics?”

    “The two fundamental contradictions in Kant’s metaphysics — that the realm of things in themselves exists and that it causes that the realm of appearances — undermine the very foundation of Kant’s ethics, the possibility of the freedom of the will. Given his conception of the law of cause and effect, Kant cannot move beyond the immediate contradiction of freedom in a realm where he thinks that determinism reigns. And even if we grant the possibility of freedom of the will, there are few compelling reasons to accept Kant’s particular conception of it, and thus accept the Categorical Imperative as binding on all rational animals.

    Thus, because of the strong connections between Kant’s metaphysics and his ethics, the contradictions in Kant’s metaphysics must necessarily undermine the principles of his ethics. Although it is possible that another means of grounding his ethics exists, until such a metaphysical foundation is discovered, we cannot accept the categorical Imperative as binding on the behavior of rational beings.”

    To put a summary on all this “headiness” I would have to point out the most obvious problem in your spiritual quest:

    Your investigation into spiritual “conversion” has thus far been purely through the intellect. That’s a valid first step. But true conversion comes from the heart. And again Joseph, nowhere do ever mention your desire for, nor your discovery of….. Love.

    You will never know true peace, true hope, nor true joy, until you first taste the Love of The Father through The Love of His Son for you. Your existence has a specific purpose in Him, with Him, and through Him, in the unity of The Holy Spirit.

  • David Elton

    I have been pondering this terrible crime for a long time. While I am sure that many edifying comments can be made, the only thing that makes sense to me is the death penalty. Let justice roll like a river over these two . . . . I don’t know, what would you call them?

  • http://www.bannonoceanart.com Bill Bannon

    They are human beings for whom we should pray but yes, they should be killed by the state’s sword (see Romans 13:3-4). In Dicken’s day such men would be taken to church on Sundays for months to lead them to repentance and then they were killed. Like the good thief said: ” We are getting what our deeds deserve but this man is innocent.” And he said that during his own death penalty.

  • Peggy Coffey

    Bill Bannon:
    I agree with you. While we know these people are depraved individuals, praying for them while they rape and murder your family won’t help anyone. My husband and I both know how to use firearms and we have taught our children accordingly. It would be lovely if Christian values would change the depraved mind, but it won’t and never will. You can pray all you want but if they want to kill you, they will.

    Not being religious in any way, I would have no problem shooting anyone that came onto my property uninvited. And if I was told to go to my bank to withdraw money I would drive 100 mph into the nearest building, knowing he couldn’t call his partner in time to do anything. My husband says I have a very short fuze..

  • http://www.bannonoceanart.com Bill Bannon

    Find out your region’s rules of engagement though to protect yourself from going to prison for one thing. Technically I could have been arrested back in October ( see my first post)….let’s just say for excessive means. God saved my tail frankly by giving me empathetic cops… but God wants me to do it within the law next time. But inside the house, God wants you to kill the armed intruder fast because as long as he can move his trigger finger, he can kill or paralyze you or loved ones. Celibates can be pacifists. I can’t see it for family people.

  • boqueronman

    For those who really wish to view the bottom of the pit of evil, I suggest a harrowing journey into Eastern Europe and Russia 1933-45 as illuminated in excruciating detail in prize winning historian Timothy Snyder’s book “Bloodlands.” Here is the first paragraph of the Preface:

    “‘Now we will live!’ This is what the hungry little boy liked to say, as he toddled along the quiet roadside, or through the empty fields. But the food that he saw was only in his imagination. The wheat had all been taken away, in a heartless campaign of requisitions that began Europe’s era of mass killing. It was 1933 and Joseph Stalin was deliberately starving Soviet Ukraine. The little boy died, as did more than 3,000,000 other people. ‘I will meet her,’ said a young Soviet man of his wife, ‘under the ground.’ He was right’ he was shot after she was, and they were buried among the 700,000 victims of Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937 and 1938. ‘They asked for my wedding ring, which I….’ The Polish officer broke off his diary just before he was executed by the Soviet secret police in 1940. He was one of about 2000,000 Polish citizens shot by the Soviets or the Germans at the beginning of the Second World War, while Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union jointly occupied his country. Late in 1941, an eleven year old Russian girl in Leningrad finished her own humble diary: ‘Only Tania is left.’ Adolf Hitler had betrayed Stalin, her city was under siege by the Germans, and her family were among the 4,000,000 Soviet citizens the Germans starved to death. The following summer, a 12 year old Jewish girl in Belarus wrote a last letter to her father: ‘ I am saying goodbye to you before I die. I am so afraid of this death because they throw small children into the mass graves alive.’ She was among the more than 5,000,000 Jews gassed and shot by the Germans.”

    There are 408 more pages of this story. The total number of civilian murders during this 12 year period, by the way, was 14,000,000.