Wednesday, November 30 2022


On March 24, 1998, Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden opened fire at Westside Middle School near Jonesboro, Arkansas. Four students and a teacher were killed and many others injured. Occurring a year before the infamous Columbine, Colorado school massacre, the Arkansas shooting was big news — not just because mass shootings were relatively rare at that time, but because of the ages of the shooters: Johnson was 13 and Golden was 11.

Dr. Jonathan Kellerman was so disturbed by what had happened that he could not sleep. Already a successful novelist, he put aside the novel he was working on and began researching a simple question: how could children do such a thing? Kellerman was more than qualified to research the subject: He earned his doctorate in psychology from USC in 1974, eventually becoming a psychologist at the USC School of Medicine and later a tenured clinical professor of pediatrics. His doctorate focused on assigning blame for childhood psychopathology. As he describes it:

“…I had been trained as a clinical child psychologist, had worked for two decades in a large urban hospital, and as a private practitioner had witnessed many psychopathologies firsthand. But… my education and experience seemed pathetically inadequate. I struggled to make sense of the outburst…”

That same night he began researching and writing what was eventually called Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children. It has been noted, both for its author (a famous novelist) and for its main lesson: Kellerman concluded that when analyzing the research, education alone cannot explain the violent tendencies of all young offenders. Most mass shooters have been abused and/or neglected, but not all. His claim: Some people are simply born bad. The idea is alarming: if education explains violence, then we can do something about it. We can rebuild broken families, we can improve schooling, we can fight abuse and bullying, and we can offer counseling and role models. However, if the problem is nature – that is, some people are born psychopaths (lacking feelings of pity) – there is literally nothing society can do to “fix” them. As he said, the only solution is to “lock them up until they die”.

The idea also has a parallel in international issues. One of then-President Ronald Reagan’s most famous speeches included these important words:

I urge you to beware of the temptation…to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding, and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between good and evil and good and evil.

The phrase “evil empire” went viral (as viral as 1983 could get), and Reagan was criticized for using it. Can’t we all get along? Isn’t dialogue the solution? In this “optimistic view” of human nature, evil doesn’t really exist – it’s the result of poverty and ignorance, and if we provided everyone with a solid education and basic financial stability, most (or all) of the violence would disappear. In this view, the solution to evil is not to fight it, but to speak out and educate.

Interestingly, Jewish thinking on this issue seems to align with that of Dr. Kellerman and President Reagan: evil is not simply the absence of good. It is a “thing”, as Isaiah says (at 45:7): He “forms light and creates darkness; [He] makes peace and creates evil. The idea that God “creates evil” is both axiomatic and troubling. Axiomatic because in any monotheistic thought, only God can create anything. Disturbing because how could the Source of all Good create evil? What does it mean?

I may have found part of the answer at the recent Olami Summit (a gathering of over 600 college students from around the world in Stamford, CT). A student asked one of the Olami scholars, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” — a question so important that even Moses asked G‑d it (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 7a). Part of the rabbi’s response included this important concept: “According to Jewish thought, life is wonderful, but it is also full of challenges. It’s all about choosing to do good and fight evil, within ourselves and everywhere.

What emerges from all this is that not only does evil exist, but its existence is not banal. Recognize evil and fight it, is at the heart of the very reason for our existence. When I overcome my natural greed and donate a coin to charity, it’s not a trivial decision. That’s why I’m here.

Whether it’s mass shootings or international incidents, it’s easier to ignore the evil or “wish it away”. Yet with the spate of near-daily mass shootings in the United States and the invasion of Ukraine, the case for simply relying on education and defensive policing seems weaker. Sometimes you have to stand up to evil.

When the State of Israel stands up for the innocent victims of aggression, it is not a trivial policy. This is part of the very purpose of our existence. Our relationship with Russia is complicated. Russia clearly worked against Israel in wars with Arab states throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and did everything it could to destroy Judaism within its sphere of influence for some 70 years, since the Revolution Russian. After perestroika, it gravitated towards our orbit, at least partially (but let’s not forget its close relations with Iran and Syria). And, yes, Ukraine’s history with the Jews is not pretty and more than one Ukrainian national hero has been an anti-Semitic murderer.

But things have changed. Societies change. Today’s Ukraine is not the Ukraine of the 1940s – it came a lot closer to the West. And Russia is not the Russia of the early 2000s – in many ways it has moved away from the West. In this war, it is clear who the victim is.

We have to be smart, we have to stay connected to the Jewish community in Russia and help them as much as we can, but we also have to remember that as individuals and as a country turning a blind eye to evil goes to the against the very purpose of our existence. We must defend morality, not just practicality.

Doron Kornbluth is a bestselling author, international speaker and co-founder of Mosaica Press

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