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Sympathy for the Devil

Saturday, April 27, 2013

When the search for motives leads to moral alibis.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, Americans are again searching for motives. It is our way of dealing with acts that shock and outrage our collective sensibilities. We looked for motives after the Oklahoma City bombing and after 9/11. We looked for them in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, when we asked ourselves what motive a young man could have to kill first graders. But what exactly are we doing when we go in search of a motive for such crimes?

The concept of a motive is an essential part of any criminal investigation. When detectives are confronted with an unsolved crime, they begin by asking who might have had a motive to commit the crime in question. For example, a woman is found dead under suspicious circumstances. Only weeks before, her husband had taken out a large insurance policy on her life. Here we have a possible motive for him to kill his wife, namely, his desire to collect her life insurance. Needless to say, a possible motive is not enough to convict the husband of his wife’s murder, but it is enough to cause those investigating the case to focus more intensely on the husband as a possible suspect.

When the police look at the various possible motives for a crime, they are engaging in an age-old heuristic for discovering the identity of the criminal who committed the crime. As every good detective knows, there is a well-established standard repertoire of motives to commit any particular crime. If money has been embezzled from a firm, for example, investigators begin by asking which of the firm’s employees has the most urgent need for quick cash. When it is learned that Bob has enormous gambling debts or that Frank is supporting an expensive mistress, suspicion will naturally fall on them. Again, mere suspicion is not proof of guilt, but it is often the means by which such proof is finally obtained. In sum, the search for motives is a time-honored method of solving crimes in those cases where the perpetrator of the crime is unknown to us.

As every good detective knows, there is a well-established standard repertoire of motives to commit any particular crime.

In addition, consideration of motive plays an important role in determining our attitude toward a criminal once he has been identified. If Jones deliberately runs over and kills a child, simply because the child’s skin is a different color from his own, we will brand him a heinous criminal, and we will certainly be right in our judgment. But suppose Smith is driving home from work, paying close attention to the road. Suddenly, a child runs out from behind a car. The driver tries to avoid hitting the child, but it is too late — the child is struck by the car and is instantly killed. Do we charge the driver with murder? No, because she did not intend to hit the child, nor could it be shown that she was negligent in her driving. She, like the child, was the victim of a horrible accident. It was not her fault. The difference in our moral evaluation of these two cases turns entirely on the question of motive. Jones had a motive to kill, while Smith had none.

Furthermore, even when we discover a motive for a particular crime, we tend to make sharp moral discriminations between different kinds of motives. The man who murdered his wife in order to collect on her life insurance policy will be judged far more harshly, both by the law and by the public, than the man who killed his wife in a fit of passion after finding her in bed with his best friend. Needless to say, we think it right and proper that a man who has committed a crime of passion should be found guilty of murder, but most of us will judge him less severely than the man who has plotted to kill his wife in cold blood, simply to collect a big pile of money.

What exactly is the basis of these two different moral assessments of what is, in fact, the same crime — namely, murder? Virtually all of us have experienced the pangs of jealousy and we are aware of how tormenting these can be. We can imagine the feelings of a man who comes home to find his wife in the arms of his best friend. We might even find ourselves thinking, “Yes, I might have done the same thing if I had been in the same situation.” Not many of us, however, (I hope) feel that we could murder our spouse to collect his or her life insurance. Or, to put the matter more generally, we all tend to be more sympathetic to those criminals who have acted on motives to which we can personally relate — that is to say, motives that might have been our own under certain circumstances.

But what about the Boston Marathon bombers, or, indeed, what about all the other atrocities that have grabbed national attention? Do we really believe that if we search hard enough, we will discover that the offenders had motives that we can relate to — motives that would make us feel like we understood why they had committed such outrages? Why can’t we simply admit that this is an evil beyond our comprehension — an evil that we are fortunate enough not to be able to grasp? After all, when we ask what motive a man can have to commit an unspeakable act, we are inviting him to offer us an explanation of his action that allows us to make sense of it, to see it from his point of view, to think to ourselves that perhaps if we were in his position, we might even do the same thing. In short, by merely suggesting that a man had a motive to commit an act, are we not coming dangerously close to offering him a moral alibi?

We all tend to be more sympathetic to those criminals who have acted on motives to which we we can personally relate.

Great White Sharks have no motives. When such a shark attacks, we don’t spend much time wondering what political grievances the shark had, or whether its unhappy childhood might have embittered it to the breaking point. We certainly don’t seek to understand more about the shark’s personal background. It is enough for us to know that a shark is a shark, and that this particular shark was simply behaving the way sharks do. We don’t blame him, we just avoid his species. Yet when human beings attack, creating far more devastation and suffering than any shark could on its own, we Americans have a completely different approach. Then we begin to ask why, to look for a reason, to seek the motive. But don’t some acts speak for themselves? When two individuals set off a bomb full of shrapnel in a busy public place, can’t we just be content with saying that their motive was to kill and maim innocent people, and leave it at that?

Conservatives often suspect that liberals encourage the search for motives precisely in order to create sympathy for those who have committed atrocities. No doubt this is true of many liberals, who seem to delight in finding moral alibis even for those who have committed the most shocking atrocities. Go back and reflect, for example, on the moral outrage displayed by many liberals when George W. Bush referred to the perpetrators of 9/11 as “evil-doers.” By using this phrase, these liberals argued, the president was “de-humanizing” the terrorists. An evil-doer, by definition, has only one motive: to do evil. He is a Great White Shark in human guise, with whom it is impossible to have any sympathy.

But that’s just the question: should we have any sympathy for terrorists or for those who kill first graders? Should we try to humanize them? Conservatives will surely answer with a resounding no, and so will many liberals. Yet our obsessive search for motives in dealing with those who commit atrocities has the inevitable result of humanizing those very individuals who first came to public attention after having deliberately thrown aside even a minimal respect for the humanity of others. You cannot de-humanize those who have already de-humanized themselves, nor hope to restore their lost humanity by providing them with moral alibis.

Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War, Civilization and Its Enemies, and The Suicide of Reason.

FURTHER READING: Harris also writes “North Korea's Bluffing Blowhard,” “Enlightened Conservatism,” and “Can the GOP Be Saved? The Myth of the Demographic Fix.” Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg discuss “Americans and the Terrorism Threat 10 Years After 9/11,” John R. Bolton comments “We Can’t Ignore Foreign Roots of the Massacre,” and Leon Aron contributes “Understanding Chechnya, Jihad, and the Region’s Deep Ties with al Qaeda.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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