Friday, April 19, 2013

Is a Terrorist Evil?

With Friday's arrest of one suspected marathon bomber and the death of the other, his older brother, I think anyone with connections to Boston is feeling some strong emotions. As a native New Englander, I'm feeling about as strongly as anyone outside of the Boston region. I have friends in the city, one of whom was two blocks away at the time of the explosion, and just a month ago I was in Boston for a conference. I road a bus past the site where the explosions went off several times while I was there. To New Englanders, Boston is our home city, the only real city in all of New England.

So the attacks literally hit close to home.

So I understand why my fellow Americans are angry at the arrested suspect - and I will refer to him as a suspect out of my respect for the US court system which considers a person innocent until proven guilty in court, though it's hard to imagine any reasonable doubt as to his guilt, after the shooting spree in which he and his brother killed one police officer and wounded another. And like my fellow Americans, I'm relieved to simply have a face and a name to hold responsible for the tragedy in Boston. During the first few days following the attack, when there didn't seem to be any clear leads, I felt just as overwhelmed and lost. I knew there would be evidence and that the FBI would track down the guilty parties, but until they did, the violent act felt all the more frightening because of the mystery.

But amidst all the relieved reactions to Tsarnaev's arrest, I'm seeing a troubling trend. Sure, most people I know are hoping for justice in court and are recognizing that the younger brother is an American citizen, unlike his deceased older brother. But even among those I respect and love and care about, a few make a quick and angry move to label Tsarnaev as "evil."

But is Tsarnaev evil?

Is this 19-year-old man evil?

I don't want to fall into the mistake that reporters did when they covered the Steubenville case, so I won't bemoan the opportunities these two men gave up in their own lives or complain if Tsarnaev is convicted, rather than considering the long-term impact on victims and survivors of the attacks in which he participated.

But is he evil?

I doubt it. I sincerely doubt that this young man is pure evil. I even doubt that his older brother, who was by all reports the likely instigator here, was evil. What they did was wrong, heinous, and tragic, but here's why we can't label these two men as evil:

When we label individuals or groups as evil, we cease to see them as people. If you ascribe to a faith like mine, we forget that they are children of God with divine potential. Driven by revenge, we suddenly want to see them suffer for their crimes, and who can blame us for making them suffer if they're evil?

So, does Tsarnaev deserve to suffer?

 Perhaps. But I'll tell you the kind of suffering I want him to experience - I want him to some day look in his God's face and watch as his God weeps in sorrow and disappointment over his actions from this week. I want him to recognize that what he did was truly wrong and horrendous and that the forces he believes supported those actions in fact condemn those actions. Because Tsarnaev is still a human. And both Tsarnaevs probably believed they had excellent reasons for doing what they did. .

Perhaps these brothers even believed they were avenging a specific act of violence perpetrated by the US government against people they loved and cared about. Even as a US citizen, perhaps Tsarnaev wanted other Americans to suffer as those he cared about had suffered. Perhaps he believed we were evil. That his victims deserved to feel pain.

Just try something with me for a second. I want you to think of the most pain you have ever experienced. If that's too strong of a trigger for you, then by all means don't! But if you can, think back to a time after a surgery, or in childbirth, or when you broke your leg as a kid. Think about that pain and how you felt at the time - that's what pain feels like to everyone.

That's what pain feels like to a murderer.

That's what pain feels like to a rapist.

That's what pain feels like to anyone, no matter the terrible things they've done.

It doesn't feel like justice. It doesn't correct them or fix them. And I can guarantee you it does not convince others who associate with the same terrorist organizations to not commit similar crimes. If anything, it's going to persuade the remaining members of that organization that the people they're waging war against are as evil - as un-human - as they believed when they planned the first attack.

So yes, press for legal justice against Tsarnaev. But not on the basis that he deserves to suffer. He might deserve that, but it won't do any good to anyone. The reason he needs to be in prison and needs to be tried is because if he truly is guilty (as he very well seems to be) he cannot be on the streets. He cannot be trusted, ever again for the rest of his life, to be free. He is a fellow human, a fellow American, who has surrendered that right.


  1. You ask "is he evil" and then say, "no, he's not pure evil."

    I would agree that he's not PURE evil, because I don't think any human is PURE evil.

    But he's still evil. Period. Anybody who drops bombs into a crowd of innocent bystanders certainly qualifies as evil. Coming close to as pure evil as humans can get, I'd even wager. But yes, evil.

    1. Carl, we might be defining 'evil' differently here, and I don't disagree for an instant that his actions were evil. But to me, someone who is actually evil would have to understand that God condemned their actions and would have to delight in the suffering of people whom they recognized as innocent.

      Chances are this man didn't set off the bomb just for the sake of knowing other people were suffering. Assuming he is guilty, chances are he believed he was serving a greater good.

      I just think it's incredibly important to remember that one group's freedom fighter is another group's terrorist and to make sure we don't oversimplify what someone's motives might have been - if we think that people commit evil actions simply because those people are evil, we might not recognize it when we support similar actions against "our enemies."

    2. Nope. We're not defining evil differently here, we're defining PURE evil differently.

      He was evil. But you are correct, he wasn't denying-the-light-saying-&*!#$^-you-to-God's-face-raping-babies-running-kittens-over-with-a-lawnmower evil (or whatever you think is the purest form of evil). He was just Ignoring-the-Quranic-verse-that-says-killing-one-person-is-killing-the-world-blowing-up-innocents-killing-cops-running-over-his-brother evil.

      Still evil. The fault line between the good and evil runs through all of us, and I don't for a minute think you can actually split the sin and the sinner in cases like this. Loving the sinner and hating the sin does not mean we don't acknowledge evil as evil and the people who perpetrate them as evil. Probably not PURE evil, because I think that there is hope for even people like him, but EVIL nonetheless! I think labeling someone as evil doesn't stop acknowledging them as a person, as you imply in your post. I think it shows that I acknowledge their evil decisions made using their own free will. I am acknowledging them as a person and I'm saying that they made evil choices and hence are evil. I find the "oh he thought he was doing good" patronizing. No. He screwed up. He screwed up so royally that he is now evil. I hope that someday he will see God, as you say, and realize exactly how royally he screwed up. We can then have a discussion, in Christianity at least, about redeemed humanity and when exactly our own evil goes away through Christ, but the evil needs to be removed.

      That means there is evil there.

    3. Carl, the lengthy explanation it takes for you to explain how your view of evil differs from mine makes it clear that our views on the matter do, in fact, differ.

      So that's fine. We're using the same word in some different ways.

      The area where I hope we still agree is that even someone you'd classify as "evil" is human and experiences pain and suffering with all the vulnerability any other human does. The more time passes, the more I'm fundamentally opposed to revenge. (Revenge meaning, making someone suffer because they made you suffer and you want retribution).

  2. I think you're completely right, Emily. We often have a hard time separating acts from the people who perform them. If the courts can prove that he was in fact one of the people who committed this act, then our justice system will try to deal him justly, but too often we assume that because the FBI has identified someone as the culprit, that the FBI must be 100% correct and we applaud the capture and death of the culprits who by simply being identified as the culprits are somehow magically exempt from being innocent until PROVEN guilty in a COURT. It is suspicious that they fled, but wouldn't you if you were seen as a terrorist. Maybe "The Fugitive" (the movie) and other movies like it have left me too suspicious.

    1. Jenny, exactly - the fact that someone's been identified as a suspect really shouldn't lead us to assume they're guilty. In this case, I do think he's made himself look extra guilty by throwing pressure-cooker bombs at police officers instead of just fleeing. But yes, there might a lot more to the story that we don't know yet.