Alan Boraas: Random is evil, like a rogue bear

By ALAN BORAASMay 3, 2013 

One of the most common metaphors of evil in Western mythology is darkness. "The prince of darkness," "he turned to the dark side," or Charles Manson's "From the world of darkness I did loose demons" are among many examples of dark as evil. There are 350 references to dark or darkness in the Bible. Almost all are bad.

But darkness is not a good metaphor of evil in the north where dark prevails as a natural phenomenon much of the year. Darkness as evil is the subconscious foundation of seasonal affective disorder. In reality darkness is simply the absence of light and is one of the most beautiful parts of winter.

For the Dena'ina, who have lived in south-central Alaska for thousands of years, the metaphor of evil is not darkness; it is a rogue bear.

On April 21, the Burke family of Kenai encountered evil in the form of a rogue bear at the Kasilof River flats on the Kenai Peninsula. Like my neighbors I've been to the Kasilof River mouth hundreds of times. I throw sticks for the dogs, with my wife I look for agates. It restores me. I've never seen a bear or bear tracks and I seldom carry a gun or bear spray. Of course, the dogs help. It's a wide open place with few trees in an estuary that is remarkably pristine.

According to Jenny Neyman, writing in the Redoubt Reporter, unbeknownst to the Burke family a rogue bear had been prowling the north bank on that sunny, chilly Sunday afternoon. They were there with a spotting scope to see if any yellowlegs or other returning birds had marked the renewal of the seasons. Dad, mom, two sub-teens and a seven-month- old baby in mommy's baby pack were walking the beach, a stones throw from their vehicle, when the old sow attacked them.

A rogue bear is an unpredictable bear and that's what makes her evil. Most brown bears are predictable. You come upon them, they look at you, you look at them, you yell and wave your arms, they snort and amble off, and you slowly back away bear spray in hand. Predictability is sanity, for you and the bear.

Unpredictability is unsettling, unstable, it robs life of its meaning because there is no context in which to understand it. Unpredictability is random and random is evil. An unpredictable rogue bear is the perfect metaphor of evil in the north. And it frames evil as an action rather than a presence.

When cowardly brothers randomly placed a bomb at the Boston Marathon finish line and blew innocent bystanders' legs off, that's evil. When a wimpy 20-year-old killed 20 random kids in their classroom, that's evil. When a nut case kidnapped a young woman he'd never met from her coffee stand and raped and killed her, that's random and that's evil.

But when a squad of Navy Seals stormed Bin Laden's compound and killed him, that's not evil. That's the predictable consequence of an evil act.

Random, senseless acts are the foundation of evil. They upset stability, they upset predictability, they instill chaos. One of the Dena'ina names for a spring brown bear is "riptide" -- a powerful, swirling, relentlessly chaotic Cook Inlet phenomenon.

The bear at the mouth of the Kasilof had attacked a vehicle and a power pole before it attacked the Burke family. Neither the mother nor the children ran. The baby in her arms didn't even wake up. They stood behind their dad who did what he could. He punched the bear and hit her with his spotting scope. When it broke, he stabbed her with the jagged edge. The bear struck at him and bit him, but because of his warm clothes, it only bruised his arm.

The unpredictable bear eventually turned, heading in the direction of some distant beach walkers. The family scrambled to their nearby vehicle, called 911, and troopers came and killed the bear.

Maybe the bear was rabid, maybe she was just cranky from old age and a hard winter. Maybe she was rattled by a kid on a four-wheeler hot-rodding on the beach. Whatever it was she was dangerously unpredictable.

We can take a lesson from the courageous little family. They did not play dead (although there would be a time to do that). They did not run -- never run. They stood up to a powerful force and confronted it with what they had.

Alan Boraas is an anthropologist at Kenai Peninsula College.

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