If all of America can agree on one thing, it is that the Boston bombing was a deeply evil act. And if all of America could agree on the one question that needs answering from those responsible for these depraved acts, it is, "Why?"I sat around a dinner table recently with a bunch of Catholic friends and the Boston bombings came up in conversation. There was unanimous agreement; no one could understand how any human person could commit such a large scale and hideously evil act. "How could anyone do such a thing?"
Behind the frantic search by media outlets for any revealing details from the pasts of the two main suspects - anything that would pull back the debris and find a motive - there exists the natural response to intense evil: confusion.
As I watched online live coverage of the manhunt coming from one of Boston's local news stations, I heard the news anchors interviewing one of Dzokhar's high school classmates.
She describes her shock and horror upon finding out Dzokhar is suspected to be guilty of the Boston marathon bombings. After seeing his photo on television she scours her old yearbook to make sure its really him. She remembers Dzhokhar as a normal high school guy.
At the end of the interview the news anchor asks, "But was there anything different or odd about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that you noticed back then?" He's almost pleading with her.
"No, he was a normal kid like any other high school teenager."
Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing more difficult than understanding him.
After hearing that interview, for some reason I was disturbed. So much so that I wrote this article. I couldn't shake the feeling that we are all grasping for an excuse.
Certainly we do not want to excuse the guilty. No one is looking for an excuse that would save killers from just punishment.
I get the feeling we are looking to excuse ourselves.
In the smokey confusion that follows the presence of large-scale evil, we naturally look for a way to distance ourselves from the capacity to commit such acts. We look for a way to excuse ourselves from the one thing we do share with all those who have ever carried out evil acts - the capacity to commit those acts.
Maybe I'm the only one willing to admit the question that sometimes flashes in the mind when using a large knife, or holding a gun, or driving a vehicle. It is a question I'm sure is intensified by exposure to horror movies, graphic video games, and television shows. But the question is present regardless of our exposure to graphic acts of violence, crimes against humanity, and evil.
Do I have the capacity within me to commit a gravely evil act?
Once the smoke settles on an event like this, there are immediate lines drawn between "them" and "us", "good people" and "bad people", the "stable" and the "unstable". And you will hear the phrase "I just can't imagine..." over and over again. "I could never do such a thing. I couldn't imagine doing anything like that."
But is this the correct Catholic response?
Leaving Divine Revelation aside for a minute, we could turn to science and ask the question "Are normal, ordinary people capable of intensely grave evil acts?"
I don't need to retell the stories of the Milgram Experiment, or the Stanford Prison Experiment, or the Abu Ghraib torturing; you can read about those yourself. All of them though, seem to prove that normal people, mentally healthy and ordinary folk, have a capacity for evil acts such as torture and killing. In all of these instances normal people were placed in situations that resulted in them committing or at least believing they were committing extremely evil acts.
Classically divided, the question of "Why do people behave a certain way?" could be separated into two categories. For us, we could be tempted to excuse the capacity for evil as either an innate personal characteristic, or the result of traumatic personal experiences and environment. Nature versus nurture.
Some might be tempted to suggest that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev must have some sort of inbred flaw that allows them to commit heinous acts of violence without any empathy towards others. They might suggest a mental illness and chalk it up to simply being psychopaths.
Others might be more sympathetic and guess about the upbringing and environment the brothers were exposed to. Maybe they had abusive parents. Maybe there is some history of childhood trauma. Maybe they were under the influence of narcotics. Maybe time spent in Russia made them somehow capable of evil. And of course people will point to Islam Extremist influences that glorify "martyrs" and violence to further their cause.
The banality of evil is displayed in the details of the bombing. Maybe Dzokhar didn't see the 8-year-old boy nearby when he laid down his back pack filled with high powered explosives, nails, and other shrapnel. Maybe he did. If he did, maybe he has a mental condition that leaves him unable to feel empathy. Maybe he has been conditioned by years of hate and trauma.
Or maybe he is just a normal guy who decided to commit an evil act for various reasons, none of which imprisoned his free will or forced him to do anything.
Notice exactly what I am and am not saying. I am not saying that psychology only excuses evil and sheds no profitable light on what makes an otherwise normal person commit evil acts. But I am also not saying that we should chalk evil acts such as these up entirely to outside forces, internal disorders, or religious provocation.
Do we ever stop and wonder if any murderer who has ever uttered the phrase really spoke the truth when he said "I don't know why I did it." That a man could have no psychological or personal motivations for committing an evil act other than the desire to commit it?
Psychology might be able to provide some insight into the circumstantial ingredients for a mass murderer, but even psychologists will tell you that psychology is not meant to explain away culpability.
And we certainly, as Catholics, shouldn't be surprised by man's capacity for evil. Nor should we try to distance ourselves from "them" who are capable of evil.
"Sin is present in human history; any attempt to ignore it or to give this dark reality other names would be futile." (CCC 386)
In 1907 the Times of London asked a handful of acclaimed philosophers and writers to share their thoughts on the question: "What's Wrong with the World?". A poignant response came in the form of a characteristically terse letter:
Regarding your article ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’
We should not be surprised that man has a capacity for extremely evil acts. And we should never forget this. When you hear people confused and wondering how anyone could blow up strangers and shoot a cop in cold blood, don't be tempted to excuse the capacity for evil away.
"Without the knowledge Revelation gives of God we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc. Only in the knowledge of God's plan for man can we grasp that sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another." (CCC 387)
These are not just evil acts. This is sin. And sin implies a nuanced understanding of man. Sin implies free will. If Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were truly free in choosing to sin against God and commit such violence, and I also posses free will, then I am also capable of committing gravely mortal sins.
As odd as it sounds, when we buy into the disbelief of man's capacity for evil, we are only feeding a nihilistic worldview that sees man as merely a sum total of his given genetic qualities plus his circumstances.
This is not the Catholic worldview. And when this worldview is drawn out to its conclusion, the bombings shouldn't be a surprise at all. Viktor Frankl knew this well:
"If we present man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present him as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind machine, as a bundle of instinct, as a pawn of drive and reactions, as a mere product of heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone.
I became acquainted with the last stage of corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment - or, as the Nazis liked to say, "of blood and soil."
I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Trblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers."
Fulton Sheen once during the opening of a speech he gave at a National Prayer Breakfast meeting looked at the President of the United States, pointed, and said "Mr. President, you are a sinner."
He then proceeded to point to himself and say "I am a sinner. We are all sinners."
Do not forget that the greatest moral evil ever committed - the murder of God's only son, caused by the sins of all men - was carried out by masses of ordinary, average people. And the sins that caused this death have our names on them.
When faced with the sobering reality of man's capacity for evil, we mustn't turn away ashamed and detached. Certainly this is not Christ's response to our evil. We must recognize it as an event calling us to greater reliance on God's grace to become who we were created to be, which is a perilous and fragile journey.
Sin is an offense against God, and it is an offense against who we are created to be. This is different than calling it merely an evil act. Sin exists because we posses free will, and can freely choose evil instead of good. I can freely choose evil. Intense and grave evil.
G.K. Chesterton once pointed out that "[t]here are many, many angles at which one can fall but only one angle at which one can stand straight."
And when you hear of Boston Bombings and evil committed by men, pray for the souls of those guilty, pray for the victims, and pray for God's grace.
"There but for the grace of God, go I."