On a sunny December day in 2016, a twenty-eight-year-old struggling actor with a history of drug and alcohol abuse drove the little under four hundred miles from his home in the Piedmont of North Carolina to the bucolic Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Chevy Chase, where he fired three shots from an AR-15 into a popular hipster pizzeria. Storming into the establishment, which he and a growing contingent of online conspiracy theorists believed was the nexus of an underground ring that involved some of the United States’s most powerful politicians, the man hoped to uncover the dungeons where he had been told girls and boys were being horrifically abused by a coven of Satan worshipers. In the back of the pizzeria, all that he found was an office; a computer that the manager worked on, and filing cabinets with employee information. After his arrest, he told a reporter for the New York Times that “the intel on this wasn’t 100 percent.”
CNN anchor Chris Cuomo referred to the assailant as “either mentally ill or really stupid;” four years later and a Washington Post column by Max Boot, which was about the rise in similar online conspiracy theories, was entitled “Welcome to the United States of ‘Idiocracy.’” Cuomo and Boot aren’t wrong, believing that an utterly prosaic restaurant — the same sort that in any number of American towns families gather after work, or school, or the game — houses a satanic coven is stupid, and silly, and puerile. Fantasists who trade in such urban legends are easy to mock; men and women who in a desperate search for meaning in a society where so little is granted have chosen to fall for such obviously ridiculous stories. Those who knowingly spread such disinformation, for economic incentive or political power, deserve nothing but our scorn and opprobrium. But while the fantasy that compelled a North Carolina man to drive to a Washington, D.C., pizzeria in the hopes of freeing children in bondage is silly, stupid, and puerile, it’s also incredibly dangerous. The demonization of whole segments of society has only increased over the past decades, and if the history of demonology has taught us anything, it’s how deep the precipice might be. Whatever motivated that man with the AR-15 into potentially shooting up a restaurant, he seemed to be spurred by a genuine belief that what he was doing was good. There’s a crucial observation here — when it comes to being haunted by demons, it’s a perilously thin line between thinking you’re fighting them and actually being possessed by them.
As I was finishing Pandemonium, the fruits of such satanic paranoia manifested in a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol itself, wherein (among several divergent contingents), those who shared in the pizzeria assailant’s delusion hoped to execute lawmakers upon impromptu scaffolds, an echo of America’s darkest past. Such paranoia resulted in the closest that the United States has ever come to a coup, perpetrated by men and women who believed that they were combatting demons, and who (to my eyes), paradoxically proliferated their own profound evil instead. “America has been in love with the dark at almost every stage of its history, eager to view its enemies as satanic,” writes W. Scott Poole in Satan in America: The Devil We Know. “A country such as the United States, deeply infused with a religious sense of its identity and mission, easily slipped into the tendency of rendering its enemies, foreign and domestic, as diabolical. . . .” As I wrote captions for the final chapter, distracted by images on television playing out only a few miles from where I live — marauding crowds storming through the Capitol, smearing feces on its walls and looking for representatives and senators to lynch — I couldn’t help but think that I was witnessing evil.
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At least one motivating argument of Pandemonium has been that there is a certain theological lexicon — words like “wicked,” “sinful,” “evil,” and “demonic” — which have a spiritual, ethical, political, and intellectual utility. I firmly believe that when we abandon such a vocabulary, whatever our own personal theologies may be, we lose the ability to properly designate certain things that need to be understood honestly and with clear eyes. “A gulf has opened up in our culture between the visibility of evil and the intellectual resources available for coping with it,” writes critic Andrew Delbanco in The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost Their Sense of Evil. “The repertoire of evil has never been richer,” he claims, “Yet never have our responses been so weak. We have no language for connecting our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes in the outer world.” I largely agree with Delbanco, wishing that more would bluntly identify the litany of horrors that have become so commonplace—the imprisoning of migrant children in cages, the obscene gulf between the rich and the rest, the plague that at the time of this writing has killed a half million of my countrymen, and the apocalyptic threat of climate change—as precisely what they are. Demonic.
When Delbanco says that we have no language for the demonic, surely, he means those like himself — educated, secular, urban. Plenty of people in this country have the word “satanic” in their lexicon, and they tend to direct it towards people like Delbanco (and myself). Which is the cruel reality of the lexicon of evil; an argument can be made towards its epistemological and ethical utility, but an honest accounting of history demonstrates that those words themselves are frequently used to further evil by those who think that they’re acting in the best of intentions. Pandemonium is certainly filled with examples of what the logical conclusion of demonization is, whether it’s in the pogroms instigated by those who believed in the blood libel, the auto-de-fé of the Reformation that hunts, or the gas chambers of the Holocaust. “Charles Baudelaire was wrong. The devil’s greatest trick is not to convince us that he does not exist,” writes Poole. “It is, instead, to convince us that he lives in our enemies; that he surrounds us, and that he must be destroyed, no matter the cost, no matter the collateral damage.” An uncomfortable fact of history is that where people see demons, they will soon burn people as demons—the ultimate ironic victory of Satan, perhaps.
That I can’t help but see a whiff of the demonic in the actions of those who would piously intone that it is they who are fighting what is satanic can’t help but be a bit ironic. “I’m not the demon! You’re the demon!” Certainly, there are important lessons to keep in mind about hubris and humility in this regard. Thus we have a contradiction, and a fearsome one at that—how do we preserve a vocabulary that properly identifies evil without becoming perpetrators of it ourselves? A judicious accounting of the historical record will show this to not be a particularly new problem; it will also show that there has yet to be a solution. If we completely abandon those words that properly convey the enormity of everything from the Holocaust to nuclear war — words like “evil,” “satanic,” and “demonic” — we risk falling into a latitudinarian relativism, a wishy-washy capitulation to wickedness that refuses to properly grapple with the boot on our necks. At the same time, if we’re zealous and indiscriminate in the application of those words, we risk becoming exactly what we’re claiming to be fighting against. How to chart a course between the Scylla and Charybdis of relativism and absolutism has always been the central enigma of such ethical engagement.
“Evil,” you see, is very real, whatever we call it. Being able to properly name the demons that bedevil us has always been the central concern of any legitimate demonology. “Evil as I see it is indeed metaphysical,” writes critic Terry Eagleton in On Evil, “in the sense that it takes up an attitude toward being as such, not just toward this or that bit of it. Fundamentally, it wants to annihilate the lot of it.” If true evil is the desire to obliterate existence, to “annihilate the lot of it,” then our world, perched between ecological collapse and the ever-present reality of potential nuclear Armageddon, can’t quite afford to abandon the concept of evil at this particular juncture. Jeffrey Burton Russell argues in Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World that the demonic “has been defined as the spirit that seeks to negate and destroy,” and we’d be foolish to pretend that such a force isn’t real, regardless of how we parse its ontological particulars. Yet one particular point on which we must steadfastly be careful and precise about isn’t whether or not we should apply such a word as “demonic,” but how we should apply it. Since this neologism of demonic poetics is concerned with language as much as it is with metaphysics, maybe the solution is less one of theology than of grammar. Of “demons” and the “demonic” — when it comes to applying those words to our fellow humans, let us eschew the former even while begrudgingly admitting that the later is sometimes appropriate. When confronting evil in this epoch of apocalypse, so much may ultimately depend on being able to tell the difference between a noun and an adjective.