[W]hy not take the view that the fundamental rule is that of evil, and that any happy event throws itself into question? Is it not true optimism to consider the world a fundamentally negative event, with many happy exceptions? By contrast, does not true pessimism consist in viewing the world as fundamentally good, leaving the slightest accident, to make us despair of that vision? (Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories III, 1997, p. 138)
After last week’s mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, it’s hard to discount Baudrillard’s emphasis on the presence of evil throughout the world. Baudrillard might sound like a wounded Romantic, but there’s no denying we spend a great deal of our lives either in the midst of tragedy or recovering from it.
The pain and suffering caused by the gunman, twenty-one-year-old Dylann Roof, reminds me of another French philosopher. Jean-Paul Sartre, a firm believer in the free will of the individual, wrote that when a person makes a choice he chooses for himself, but he also chooses for mankind. My choices affect other people and their choices. This is Sartre’s ethics, his caution against acting always in one’s self-interest.
Roof acted alone, but we are complicit as a nation, with our tolerance for hatred and history of institutional racism. Still, the nine lives he took are his burden now. Evil speaks to some more than others, but it touches us all. It’s a crime that Roof ignored a very important lesson: “If you can’t help others, at least do no harm.”