Most crimes are motivated by unlovely impulses that are at least comprehensible: the desire for money, sex, respect, revenge. We don’t do these things because we have been taught that "good people don’t do that!"–and we want to think of ourselves as good people, or at least have the neighbors and our parents think of us as good people. Or perhaps we’re merely afraid of getting caught and punished. But we can understand why people want to–we know what someone is after when they hold up a liquor store, or even kills their spouse for the insurance money. Understanding is not sanction: these crimes still have the power to anger and horrify. But they’re comprehensible, and that comprehensibility is surprisingly comforting.
The alternative is Newtown. When one tries to picture the mind that plans it, one quickly comes to a dead end. Even if I had been raised with no moral laws at all, even if there were no cops and no prisons, I’m pretty sure that I still wouldn’t want to spend a crisp Friday morning shooting cowering children. Trying to climb this mountain of wickedness is like trying to climb a glass wall with your bare hands. What happened there is pure evil, and evil, unlike common badness, gives an ordinary mind no foothold.
Since we can’t understand it, we can’t change it. And since we can’t change it, our best hope is to box it in. Gun control opponents are angry that liberals immediately started talking about gun control, but this seems like a natural instinct to me. It’s not the best way to get good policy, mind you; hard cases make bad laws, and rules passed in the wake of tragedies tend to be over-specific, and under-careful about unintended consequences. But it’s not somehow indelicate to want to talk about this now; if thirty children had been killed in a landslide, I hope that we’d be talking about whether there might be some way to keep that from happening in the future.