A Few Thoughts on Evil

Whenever some tragedy occurs through human agency, such as the Boston Marathon bombings or the fire which killed six of the Philpott children, people are quick to talk about evil. Not only is the deed condemned, and rightly so, but so is the person — even though the person in question may still be awaiting investigation and charging. That raises several questions of a moral nature but our judgement tends to be clouded by the emotion of the moment. We react with horror and sadness, and that same horror and sadness can lead us to say and do things which are not right.

To anyone brought up in the English tradition of ‘innocent until proved guilty’, there is a natural reluctance to presume guilt, or at any rate, to judge the extent of individual guilt, until all the circumstances are known. I  am not of the school which thinks that because someone’s Mummy boxed his ears when he was five, every wrong deed he has done since is not his fault. No, we have moral responsibility precisely because we are human, but in the case of the Boston bombing suspect, it is for the courts rather than the general public to decide (a) whether he is guilty and (b) whether there are any extenuating circumstances. That is important to remember when emotion is running high. Immediately after the young man’s capture, Twitter was awash with accusations and expressions of the desire for vengeance. It was understandable, but I am not sure that it was right.

We both trivialise evil when we use the word without sufficient reflection and potentially do others a grave injustice when we call them, rather than their deeds, evil. I am sure some people will find the distinction I am making between the person and the act incomprehensible or even offensive. I can only say that most of us, judged by our deeds, are a mixture of good and bad. It is because I believe in the reality of evil that I take it seriously and am cautious about saying that anyone is evil in himself/herself. Personally, my reaction to the Boston bombings has been one of prayer — for everyone touched by the tragedy, which necessarily includes Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his family and all of us troubled by this further evidence of the desire to kill and destroy.