The headline in my local paper yesterday read a "Nation Asks Why," in reference, of course, to the Boston bomb attack. If any among the authorities knows what motivated the Tsarnaev brothers to commit this awful crime, they haven't yet made the information public, but I have a couple of thoughts nonetheless.
1. Moral evil is real: It's fashionable in our post-modern, non-judgmental, enlightened age to pooh-pooh the notion of evil as an anachronism, a throw-back to an age when we knew less than we do today about neuroscience and how the brain works. Today sophisticated, educated people know that those who do terrible things simply have something wrong with their brains. It's not a moral issue at all.
To all of which we might respond that a society that's reluctant to call the deliberate maiming of children and other innocents evil is a society that is morally paralyzed and perishing from spiritual inanition. It has lost its soul.
I tell my students the story of a prof at Yale who after the 9/11 attack surveyed her students and found many of them were unwilling or unable to call the mass murder perpetrated on that day evil. They couldn't bring themselves to pass judgment on people from a different culture. Ironically, however, a couple of weeks before this survey the same students were almost unanimous in condemning those who kill whales for a living.
Not only are we morally paralyzed, we, or at least some of us, are terribly confused.
2. Evil is ubiquitous: Alexander Solzhenytsin said that the line between good and evil does not run between nations or cultures but through every human heart. Human beings need something outside of themselves, a set of convictions, to constrain them from the evil they often feel impelled to do, but other than Christianity there's no belief system in the world that offers an adequate constraint.
This is not to say that Christians have not done evil. They have, but the difference is that if a Christian wantonly murders innocent people he is violating the beliefs he professes to hold. He's repudiating the most fundamental tenets of his religion and betraying the God he professes to love. When, however, a Muslim or an atheist murders, especially if they murder religious or political enemies, they're not violating any such set of beliefs. Most Muslims or atheists will subjectively recoil from the idea of such a crime, but nothing in their belief systems forbids it. Their aversion to acts of evil is purely a consequence of their personalities. If those personalities were otherwise there would be no check, internal or external, on their passions.
So perhaps at least part of the answer to the question why the Tsarnaevs were willing to slaughter three people, including an 8 year-old boy, and blow the limbs off dozens of others is because the Tsarnaevs were haters and there was nothing in their hearts or minds telling them that hatred is evil and that acting upon it is even worse. Quite the opposite, in fact. In their religion hatred of infidels is good and acting upon it gains Allah's favor. For people such as the Tsarnaevs the only internal factors limiting the carnage and suffering they're prepared to inflict are their intelligence and their courage.
So, why did they do it? Because they could, and there are, I fear, lots of Tsarnaevs out there.