While I led a Bible study last night at church, nine fellow Christians were being martyred in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. My brothers and sisters in Christ there were shot down in cold blood by a 21-year-old man who had just spent the previous hour seated among them as they prayed. Almost instantly the word “senseless” was used to describe this mass murder as police and city officials were asked to comment on the killings.
Certainly from the perspective of any reasonable, rational, normal person, “senseless” seems a perfectly appropriate word to apply to an act of violence perpetrated against innocent people who apparently had no previous connection with their killer. Because for most people, for people like you and me, we cannot make sense of something like this. It MAKES NO SENSE to us.
But we mustn't be too quick to label as senseless an act that may well have made perfect sense to Dylann Roof, now in police custody after a massive manhunt. Because the word “senseless” has different shades of meaning. One meaning certainly applies to what happened in Charleston last night. The other? Maybe not.
Most people would agree that these killings were senseless in the sense of being a stupid or foolish act. Whatever sick, dark, well of hate this deeply troubled young man drew from as his motivation for this vile act, he has accomplished nothing that will work to his or anyone else’s advantage. In addition to ending the lives of nine strangers and wrecking the lives of who knows how many others, he has effectively destroyed his own life as well. If that’s not senseless in the sense of being stupid, then I don’t know what stupid is.
But senseless has another meaning. It can refer to actions that lack mental perception or comprehension. We thus might refer to the acts of an idiot or a madman as senseless. And it may prove that as the backstory of this awful deed unfolds we will learn that Dylann Roof is simply deranged and will find his place in history among the annals of the criminally insane.
But there’s another possibility. There is such a thing as evil on this earth; evil that brings with it its own worldview. From within the framework of a sin-sick soul, seen through the worldview—the lens if you would—of evil, this deed may well have made perfect sense. Actions that most people would view as random and irrational may have seemed perfectly logical and coherent to this angry young man. Such evil is the rotten fruit of a series of bad choices. And while there may be all kinds of mitigating circumstances, they remain choices—acts of deliberate and conscious will—for which the killer is morally culpable and responsible. Only time will tell if the murders in Charleston were senseless in this second meaning of the term, the act of a madman, or if they are simply and horribly an act of unspeakable evil.
I hope and pray that Dylann Roof is insane, that he is barking at the moon mad, and that he will be safely locked away for the rest of his life. Because if he is not, then the only alternative is that this young man is the living personification of evil who has taken a giant step toward eternal damnation. For if the first alternative is likened to a rabid dog, dangerous but random in his attacks, then the other is a dangerous and calculating predator—a hungry tiger on the hunt, out to make a kill.