Nothing so focuses the mind on the nature of evil like mass murder. The numbers magnify a singular horror, and become collectively unfathomable. Josef Stalin, who knew something about mass murder, showed his cold-blooded ruthlessness when he called one death a tragedy, many deaths a statistic.
Anders Behring Breivik, the Oslo shooter, would understand. He defies our ability to explain. He startles us with his ideological rationalizations, perverting Christian ideas beyond recognition, testifying only to his own crazy interpretations. But in sadness and fear, we endlessly probe his psyche, seeking causes and looking for reasons impossible for the human heart to comprehend.
His twisted mind required that his justification reside in "a higher good," which he spelled out in a 1,500-page manifesto posted on the Internet for all the world to read. It exposes a worldview rooted in a demented political vision of violently erasing Islamic influence from Europe. He blames Europeans for allowing their "purer" population to be "corrupted" by Muslims with high birth rates and ideas that threaten, he says, the very survival of the West. He advocates killing political leaders and religious followers.
Theodore Dalrymple, a British psychiatrist who works with prisoners, interprets these murderous rants from a psychological perspective. "I assume that when he was shooting all those people, what was in his mind was the higher good that he thought he was doing," he told The Wall Street Journal. "And that was more real to him than the horror he was creating around him."
Unlike Islamist terrorists, the Norwegian did not set himself up to die, but wanted to stay around to cooperate with the police and state his case, believing that his explanation would persuade millions of Europeans to take his point and act on it.
If we didn't think he was insane to do what he did, surely the logic of his wish to stay alive to deliver its rationale was insane. Try as we might, the explanation for his murderous rage won't be found in his childhood, his thwarted childlike wishes or his toilet training. Gone are the days -- good riddance -- when we put responsibility for evil on family discipline (or lack of it).
Nor can we blame the culture that nourished him. Some of the people quoted appreciatively by Breivik have felt compelled to disavow him. That shouldn't be necessary. It's clear that his mishmash of ideas were not coherently put together, but drawn up by a psychopath.
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.
Write to Suzanne Fields at: firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about Suzanne Fields and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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