Murders of every kind, but especially mass murders, rarely have their motives adequately explained. Poverty, abuse, religion, ideology . . . lawyers and pundits may try these “explanations,” but the irrationality of such acts mostly defy labels.
In fact, these rootless dances with understanding may move us from away from truth.
There is evil in the world. It does not just emerge from the circumstances of life, but from deep within. Being able to properly live together depends in part on understanding this condition.
For those not involved in the precisions of legal niceties, observing how our legal system sorts through questions of responsibility for heinous acts can seem almost comical. Typically, the accused claims insanity, but the prosecution attempts to hold the accused criminally responsible. Then, if the defendant is successful in obtaining an insanity declaration, the roles reverse and the defence begins to convince the courts that the accused has been cured and should be set free, while it is up to the prosecutors to make the opposite argument.
If the process seems complicated and confusing, it is. However, in order to recognize the humane principle that it is wrong to punish someone for sickness, there is no easy way out.
Last week’s criminal conviction of Norwegian mass-killer Anders Behring Breivik is unique: it was the prosecutors asking the court to find the defendant insane, over Breivik’s own objection. Breivik authored lengthy tomes describing religious and political views which, within the standards of western political discourse, would best be described as bizarre and fringe. Breivik’s defence for his action was a “doctrine of necessity,” suggesting that the dangers to Europe caused by continued Islamic immigration required dramatic action to awake the nation to their perilous condition. By his political rationality, the calculated murder of 77 young people at a political picnic was justified.
In a Globe and Mail opinion piece by Paul Appelbaum, a Columbia University psychiatry professor, helpfully points out the dangerous consequences of allowing political crimes to be labeled acts of insanity.
To label politically motivated crimes, no matter how reprehensible, acts of insanity denies the reality of the challenge they represent to the dominant political model. No wonder that totalitarian regimes such as the former Soviet Union and China, the latter even today, prefer to impose psychiatric hospitalization on dissenters rather than respond to their dissatisfaction. Many observers thought Norway’s prosecutors were seeking a similar goal in the Breivik case, trying to exclude anti-immigration sentiment from a place in political discourse.
In a public discourse that cringes from the language of good and evil, and which places objective reason as the anchoring foundation for sorting through the questions of how we live together, this is all unsettling. We want a rational explanation for everything, and trust that if we only listen to each others’ arguments, reason will prevail and we will all live together peaceably. When a mass murderer upsets that peaceable order, we seek an explanation that either something has perverted his reason (poverty? abuse? religion? ideology?) or else the perpetrator is sick and needs help.
The anthropological reality, however, is that the human condition is neither characterized by universal innate goodness nor is it the tabula rasa that such a trust in rationality assumes. Evil doesn’t need to be taught—we are born with it in our hearts. While thankfully God’s preserving grace restrains the full expression of that evil and allows civility to continue, the existence of evil cannot simply be wished or reasoned away. As I noted in a Globe op-ed on this case last year, the Christ-less Christianity Breivik professed was not an answer for evil but an excuse for propagating it.
The Norwegian courts acted rightly in avoiding the temptation to excuse this as sickness and instead, to register a guilty conviction for the evil of murder. Evil needs to be punished for what it is. But before that, evil needs to be named—our common life depends on it.