The first and most basic step toward doing something evil is when you consider another person as something less.
Less godly. Less good. Less human.
When Europeans decided Africans with their superstitious religions were less godly, with their cannibilistic ways were less good, with their primitive jungle ways were less human, they justified capturing them, cramming them on ships like cargo and selling them as slaves.
When Germans, most of whom were good Lutherans, decided that Jews were Christ-killers and therefore ungodly, that they were greedy and therefore less good, and that they needed the blood of kidnapped Christian children to make their matzos for Passover and therefore were inhuman vermin, they justified the theft of Jewish property, the shuttering of Jewish businesses and the gassing of innocent Jewish men, women and children.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
In August, we saw white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, chanting anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant slogans, with one plowing into a crowd of people, killing one young woman.
Less than two months later, we woke up to the news that some guy named Stephen Paddock had opened up on a crowd of country music fans with a barrage of bullets, killing 59 and wounding more than 500.
Based on reports so far, this wasn’t a crime of passion. It wasn’t a spontaneous act resulting from hearing voices telling him to do something irrational. That would be crazy, but it wouldn’t be pure evil.
This was carefully and rationally planned. Paddock modified semi-automatic weapons so that they would function as fully automatic. He planned how to get an arsenal of weapons and accessories into his hotel suite and set up video surveillance in the hallway outside his suite so he could know when authorities were closing in.
So, though he must have been (we hope) crazy to commit such an atrocity, he wasn’t out of his mind. And that’s what makes it so evil.
But it was the act that was evil.
In the time between Charlottesville to the aftermath of Las Vegas, I’ve been disturbed by the pronouncements of many who call the people evil – Nazis, white supremacists, Stephen Paddock – with the subtext being that they are wholly different from the rest of us.
Please don’t get me wrong, I am not defending them, their actions or their beliefs. I wouldn’t say, as President Trump did, that there “were some good people” among the white supremacist protesters. That was just a way to whitewash both the people and the movement.
So, let me be clear: Nazism and fascism are evil; white supremacy is evil; racism is evil; the profligacy of mass shootings in America is evil.
Evil exists, and we come face to face with it all too often. The ease at which we pronounce other people evil, however, is what has been bothering me.
The scary thing about Paddock is that, before he pulled the trigger the first time, he hadn’t broken a law. He wasn’t a criminal, he wasn’t a bad guy. As far as anyone could tell, he wasn’t mentally ill.
He was “normal,” as normal as any of us. He was one of us.
We are all looking for and hoping for an explanation for why he did this. We think we’re hoping for an explanation so that we can understand what happened and why.
What we’re really looking for is something that will make him fundamentally different than us.
To make him an other. To make him less than we are.
When we readily call a person or a group of people evil – that they are evil people, not people caught up in evil activity or evil movements – then we ourselves are doing the very things that they did which led them down the path toward evil: considering another person as something less.
Less godly. Less good. Less human.
All of us can find someone who is less than we are. Some people, like white supremacists and mass murderers, make it easy.
But if we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves somewhere down that path toward evil ourselves.
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland. A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.