Evil should not surprise Americans. We’ve seen it so many times and in so many degrees and variations — in those who tolerated some people having to sit in the back of the bus; in children who torment animals; in bankers who knowingly sold junk financial products and helped to destroy the economy; and in men who set bombs in front of innocent bystanders at a marathon. The list is almost endless for those who look.
Still, it shocks, as if the concept is unfathomable, as if 19 men didn’t kill thousands of innocent Americans only 12 years ago. And as if the Philadelphia abortion doctor, Kermit Gosnell, on trial for murdering children born alive, is some kind of fluke of history.
I was reminded of this reading the many news reports about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two men accused of the Boston Marathon bombings. So many described the pair as “normal” young men, especially Dzhokhar, the younger of the two Russian-born Chechen brothers.
One classmate of 19-year-old Dzhokhar at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth told Politico, “He was a pothead, a normal pothead. I couldn’t even imagine him being mad at someone, let alone hurting someone.”
Another told a USA Today reporter, “He was really social and hilarious. He was one of those people who would crack one joke and make your night.”
Really? Was that all there was to him? I wonder if any of his fellow party-goers asked him about the things that mattered to him or his deepest desires. None of the quotes that I have seen about him speak to that side of the young man, who reportedly confessed to planting two bombs with his brother that killed three people and injured more than 200, as well as assaulting and killing a police officer.
To be fair, of course, it is shocking when someone you know does something terrible. But it is as if collectively we do not understand that evil exists except for the moment it happens or as an event to cover, not as something present in human nature itself.
Turn on the news or watch any sitcom and this becomes immediately apparent. All lifestyle choices are equal in American culture as are all faiths, which has almost silenced substantive discussions about the largest issues in life for people living in fear of being labeled a racist, homophobe or hater.
Our language reflects this decision to suspend critical thought. Many news outlets, for example, no longer use the term “illegal immigrant.” Among the reasons for the change is that interest groups find the term dehumanizing and lacking in diversity. The Associated Press said it is changing its widely used “Stylebook” because “‘illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”
Likewise the government does not like to label people or actions with terms that could provoke questions about the nonjudgmental dominant worldview. That is why the murder of 13 innocents at Fort Hood by Maj. Nidal Hasan in 2009 is classified as “workplace violence” instead of a terrorist attack despite his screaming of “Allahu Akbar” during the massacre and despite the numerous emails found between him and the radical American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
This divorce of moral significance from the words we choose likely will not end soon.
One in three under 30 claim no religious affiliation, and so many of the rest of us view faith as a means to self-fulfillment rather than a worldview with right and wrong.
But no matter how hard we try to erase judgment from our vocabulary and culture, it cannot eliminate the dark side of human nature. And because our language reflects how we think and vice versa, as George Orwell noted in “Politics and the English Language,” understanding, anticipating and ultimately labeling evil will become more difficult for Americans.
“If you see something, say something” is a good idea for identifying suspect bags, but what will be the strategy for identifying suspect minds in the U.S. when “evil” has been removed from the “AP Stylebook”?
Marta H. Mossburg writes about national affairs and Maryland state politics. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @mmossburg.