In the media coverage of the recent “movie massacre” in Colorado we have continually heard analysts try to “make sense” of this atrocity. The same language that has been used to describe pedophile Jerry Sandusky and mass murderer Anders Brevik is now being applied to James Holmes as well. He is “sick” or “insane” or “delusional” or otherwise psychologically twisted. But I still have yet to hear anyone call him “evil” or “wicked.” Evidently, reporters and commentators are reluctant to use moral terminology to assess pedophilia, rape and murder, which is unfortunate because to call these acts evil is to call them what they are and is the best way to “make sense” of them.
Why are we so quick to psychologize brazen killers and rapists rather than to simply identify their acts as extreme wickedness? I suppose this comes from two impulses. For one thing, we simply want to understand how someone could commit such horrific acts. In the age of science we look for causes or sufficient conditions for everything, and this includes human behaviors. Secondly, we naturally desire to distance ourselves from extreme evil. If Holmes, Sandusky, and Brevik (or Adolf Hitler, for that matter) are just “mentally sick” or otherwise extremely irrational, then I can comfort myself with the thought that their actions are well beyond what I am capable of. Psychologizing the wicked in this way reassures me that, for all my faults, I would never do that.
But such thinking is problematic for many reasons. While it’s certainly appropriate to analyze the human mind in order to identify causal influences on our choices, the danger is that this may undermine a proper sense of freedom and moral responsibility. If we are truly free, if we are genuinely moral beings with the capacity to make autonomous choices, then shouldn’t we grant a bit of mystery about why we do the things we do at times? Or shouldn’t we at least admit that any one of us might have done what these wicked men have done?
These leads us to the second problem, which is the fact that psychologizing the wicked suggests a false view of human nature. According to scripture, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But more than this, we all suffer from an innate inclination toward immorality, a moral fact known as “original sin.” To suggest that one must be especially mentally warped to do extreme evil fails to recognize this natural moral corruption from which we all suffer. Now Holmes, Sandusky, and Brevik might in fact be mentally ill as well, but the point is that this is not a necessary condition for wicked behavior. All of us in our natural state satisfy the most basic conditions for evil, even of the most extreme kind.
And this points to yet another problem with the psychologizing of wickedness, which is the way it breeds pride and false security regarding one’s moral condition. Again, if it takes extreme mental “sickness” to do what these wicked men have done, then I can be secure in the thought that I am not so wicked as they are. But if I really am an autonomous being with the freedom to misuse my freedom, along with a fallen nature that predisposes me toward selfishness and immorality, then, well, I really am potentially as wicked as any mass murderer or pedophile. So what keeps me from engaging in such radical acts of wickedness? The old cliché applies: “There but for the grace of God go I.”