When terrible and senseless acts of violence happen, such as that we witnessed in Boston last week, people always ask, “Why?” They want to feel that there is some kind of rational explanation–some political brainwashing, some psychological disorder that explains things. Anything that makes the killer not like the rest of us.
The real truth of the matter–that normal human beings are capable of extraordinary evil and brutality–is just to hard for some of us to admit, even though it seems obvious when you look at all the ill that goes on in the world.
Is human nature fundamentally good? Or fundamentally evil? That’s the question that it seems people are really trying to answer when they ask the “why” question.
Fox News reports that the younger of the two bombers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, attended a party with some of his college friends from UMass Dartmouth two days after the bombing. Friends who saw him there noticed no sign of unusual behavior. He acted completely and disturbingly at ease.
“He was just relaxed,” said a student who was at the party–a gathering of friends who played intramural soccer together.
Intramural soccer? What could be more normal than that?
And he was “relaxed” after murdering a child and several adults and and maiming and terrorizing dozens more. What could be more “abnormal,” right?
Out instinct is to try to make sense of it.
And this is, I think, where one’s religious beliefs make a big difference in how we see these kinds of mass killings. Sandy Hook, Boulder, Boston–take your pick. In the Christian worldview, for example, mankind as a whole is considered fallen and in need of redemption. Therefore, while these events themselves may be shocking, it doesn’t really seem all that surprising, in the end, that human beings are capable of appalling evil. Whereas a more humanistic view, that assumes humans are basically good, seems to be more directly challenged by these sudden episodes of terror and senseless violence.
Sometimes we find evidence of mental illness–and we think, OK maybe that explains it. One of the things that is so disturbing about the Boston bombers is how seemingly normal their lives were. The brother had lived in the U.S. for many years. The younger was educated in American schools, competed in soccer and wrestling, had a Facebook account–went to college parties.
Then he went home and made bombs in his spare time.
A normal teenager. Not a psychotic.
He knew what he was doing.
He killed. Then he partied. He showed no evident remorse.
It is hard to compute. Circumstances and external influences must surely play a role. You can’t simply blame it on Islam. But radical Islam that teaches hate and violence–we’re no stranger to it these days. Surely it played a role. Whatever his religious and political beliefs were, it’s clear they weren’t redemptive. But, to me, what happened in Boston isn’t as simple as Islamic fundamentalism. At a deeper level, it’s a symptom of flawed human nature–a very public display of the kind of violence and evil that is acted out every day, everywhere. Wherever human beings live, you find innocent children are abused, innocent lives taken.
The world is full of injustice. We ask, “Why?”
To my mind, if a person like Dzhokar Tsarnaev can teach us anything, it’s that human nature is deeply flawed, and we are in need of redemption.
Nathan Harden is editor of The College Fix and author of Sex & God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad.
Follow Nathan on Twitter @NathanHarden