Why did US Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales apparently massacre sixteen Afghan villagers, including nine children?
Why did 17 year-old T.J. Lane by all accounts kill three and wound three other Chandon High School classmates he may have barely known?
Why did someone, probably Mohammed Merah, dismount from his scooter, chase an eight-year old girl into a school courtyard, grab her hair, and shoot her point-blank in the face? One of four he killed that day.
Why do I — perhaps you too — bring rather different predispositions to each of these events?
One Washington state neighbor said of Sergeant Bales, “A good guy got put in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Financial troubles, family troubles, brain-injury and more have been offered as possible explanations.
“We are all shocked and horrified by the actions of T.J.,” his aunt, Heather Lane, said in an email posted online Tuesday by The News-Herald in Willoughby (OH). “We wish we could offer some answers concerning this horrific act. We have none.”
According to The Telegraph, Mohammed Merah “told police he was acting in revenge at Israel for killing Palestinian children and at France for having troops in Afghanistan.”
The more we self-identify with the perpetrator the more we are inclined to empathize — even excuse — his actions. If we recognize ourselves or something we value in the act or actor we are ready to consider context as a contributing factor. We may speak softly of justice with mercy.
The more an accused murderer — or other miscreant — looks, sounds, or behaves unlike us the more we perceive purposeful evil emerging from the very otherness — racial, ethnic, religious, political, or whatever — that differentiates us from them. We may speak gravely of avenging justice.
This differentiated judgment depends on the proposition that I am good.
We may admit, “I make the occasional mistake.” I have unintentionally hurt others. I can be careless, distracted, sometimes self-absorbed. I have been forced to make some tough choices. But certainly none of this undoes my essential good-ness. What I value… the way I engage reality… my essential worldview is good and true and beautiful.
Someone with different values, understandings, or worldview is therefore bad, false, and ugly proportional to their deviation from me.
Whatever else happened with Bob, T.J. and Mohammed, this self-justifying logic had a role in the sub-strata of murderous motivation. For an awful hour or more the “other” — man, woman, or child — became little more than a troubling antithesis to be removed to make way for more truth, more goodness, more beauty as defined by Bob, T.J., or Mohammed.
I feel this way more often than I like to admit, sometimes regarding comments to this blog. When another’s take on an important aspect of reality (important to me) differs fundamentally from my own it is tempting to push the “trash” button conveniently placed beneath each comment. It is especially tempting because I have a trash button and they (you) don’t.
Pulling the digital kill trigger may seem to pale in comparison to murder. But the ethical distance is not huge. Either I recognize and honor the dignity of the other — especially the irritating, annoying, even frightening other — or I don’t.
In a highly mobile and digitally networked world we increasingly encounter otherness. How we choose to engage the other calls for something far beyond the tourist’s easy tolerance.
Based on what little we know of Merah, it is tempting to dismiss him as heartlessly as he dispatched seven victims. In doing so I reinforce my own differentiation, my own claim to being good. Assuming Merah’s murders are confirmed, he deserves to be condemned. Am I willing to hold myself equally accountable?
I am unlikely to commit murder. But when I do not listen carefully or purposefully ignore or fail to notice — even worse, if I twist the other’s intention in a self-interested way — I propagate a virus of violation.
The proposition I am good is a deception. Often I am not good. Usually my understanding and actions are flawed.
I recognize myself in Bob Bales and T.J. Lane and Mohammed Merah. We share the same narrow wire and are in relationship… whether we like it or not.