Suzanne Fields

Environmentalists didn't think it necessary to defend themselves in the wake of the Unabomber, though the Unabomber drew on many of their ideas when he set out to destroy others. Interpretations of individual human behavior are always complicated, and all those writers and cultural leaders quoted, both positively and negatively, by the Oslo shooter testify only that he put everything he read through the filter of a deranged mind.

It's silly to describe Breivik, as one Norwegian analyst did, as a "Christian version of al-Qaida." A lone lunatic is a lone lunatic, and there's nothing Christian about it. Dalrymple is correct that we feel compelled to understand evil in ways that don't require us to trouble ourselves about goodness. Evil animates the mind.

It's no coincidence that John Milton opened "Paradise Lost" by focusing on Satan, or that readers of Dante's "Divine Comedy" prefer the Inferno to Purgatorio and Paradiso. Evil is tangible. Goodness is more abstract. That doesn't mean there isn't a human need, even craving, to understand why people are good. It's just that virtue is more elusive, less dramatically defined.

John Jacques Rousseau said that evil is a deviation from what is natural. He blamed society and culture when things go wrong. Charles Darwin and Sigmond Freud complicated matters, but modern biological science now challenges us with new questions about innocence and guilt, free will and determinism, blameworthiness and accountability. If Breivik is found to be legally insane, he will be treated differently by the courts than if he is shown to be rational and in charge of his actions.

The bedrock of Western justice still rests on individual volition and blame, but the lines of good and evil are blurred more than they used to be. We grieve with all those lives touched by the mass murderer in Norway, and count on the courts to see clearly into the evil at work. We may never fully understand how so much could go so wrong in the mind of one man.

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Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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