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The New Zealand attack and the fundamental thoughtlessness of evil

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3 days ago Elizabeth Bruenig
a close up of a flag: The New Zealand national flag is flown at half-staff on a Parliament building in Wellington on Friday. (Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images) © Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images The New Zealand national flag is flown at half-staff on a Parliament building in Wellington on Friday. (Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images)

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On Thursday evening, news of mass murder in New Zealand reached the United States. Details of the attack at two mosques are still emerging: On Friday morning, New Zealand authorities said that 49 people had been killed, with dozens more wounded, including young children, and as many as four individuals were in custody in relation to the killings, though police have not released their names or suspected roles. 

But the purported shooter appears to have left a variety of digital artifacts behind, including an apparent live-streamed videoif a portion of the crime, pictures of the weapons used, and a long, detailed manifesto explaining his rationale for the murders. 

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The manifesto — which I won’t quote on general principle — is an especially bizarre piece of debris, as it seems to have been custom-tailored to make a particular group of extremely online right-wing users laugh, while stunning and horrifying the confused, oblivious media. It is littered with oblique references to memes, sarcastic asides and episodes of apparent satire — despite the fact that the attack it aims to explicate was extremely real. Any manifesto belonging to an extremist will naturally be more legible to members of the same fringe. But few in recent memory have seemed as clearly geared toward eliciting a laugh from fellow radicalized memesters. 

In the coming days and weeks, this strange facet of the manifesto will likely be marshaled as evidence for any number of arguments which are feasibly true: that online nihilism, and the meme-ification of killers such as the 2014 Isla Vista, Calif., shooter, are not harmless dark humor; that social media websites that serve as hubs for the dissemination of just such propaganda ought to carefully consider exactly what they’re permitting to foment; that social contagion, as opposed to solitary self-radicalization, ought to be taken far more seriously as a vector of destruction.

But I kept thinking about evil itself, and an observation about it I’ve mulled before: Among all the different expressions of evil — from the carefully planned and executed and colossal to the impulsive and rash and small — what binds them together is their fundamental thoughtlessness. Above all else, evil is unreflective, shallow, empty. The damage that it causes is forever out of proportion to the consideration that spawned it. It never really perceives itself, though it always considers itself an exacting and scrupulous judge of others. Evil is the simple adherence to orders in the course of a genocide, and it is the rattling off of dumb jokes in the run-up to a mass murder. There is always so much less there than it seems.

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