Recent tragic events in Quebec, such as the finding of a young woman’s dismembered body in Hinchinbrooke, the murder-suicide in Boucherville where a father took the lives of his own children, and the double murder in Marieville, invariably lead us to question why such things occur.
We understandably want to know what drives a person to commit such heinous crimes. This type of questioning usually leads to comments that most of us instinctively agree with, such as, “a person must be crazy to do something like that”, or “he must be sick and out of his right mind.”
I understand that these are mostly comments of initial outrage, but they are also demonstrative of how a person attempts to make sense of evil. I sometimes feel compelled to nod my head in agreement, but upon reflection I cannot help but arrive at a very different conclusion. Rather than explaining why these things occur, such comments and assertions serve only to veil the existence of evil, and in the process they undermine the principle of individual responsibility. For this reason, simply nodding in agreement, without challenge, may do more harm than good.
Mental illness not only explanation
It is only normal to try to come to grips with the commission of vile and heinous acts. But immediately dismissing the perpetrator as being mentally ill is not an explanation; it is a coping mechanism that allows us to continue to deny the existence of evil. It is a conveniently located hole in the sand in which we can quickly stick our heads and ignore the ugly truth, that evil exists, and that we are all corrupted by it to some degree or another.
Lindsey Fitzharris, a medical historian at Queen Mary University of London, wrote an article on this very topic in The Guardian shortly after Sandi Hook, titled, The Medicalization of Evil. She explains that “many people in the media assumed a crime of this magnitude could only be committed by a mentally unstable individual” and that “very little discussion – if any – was given to the role of personal responsibility in this tragic event.” In explaining the subjective nature of deviance she says, “Many scholars have argued that our concepts of deviant behaviour have changed over time, first being seen as a sin, then a crime and now a medical problem.”
She adds that “the medicalisation of deviant behaviour has made it difficult for us to accept notions of evil” and that the reason we find this narrative appealing is because “it is unsettling to admit that someone who commits a horrible crime may have done so knowingly and without remorse.” Fitzharris ends her article with a simple reminder: “Evil is about choice. Sickness is about the absence of choice.”
Sin dismissed as outdated concept
Sin is a word that invokes scoff; it is quickly dismissed as an outdated concept. It is generally understood to be a highly reprehensible act, a violation of divine law, and/or the corrupted state of the human species. As a concept, sin not only recognises evil, but it also recognises the importance of personal choice and individual responsibility, which are necessary principles for a stable civil society.
When it comes to evil, we need not look far to find evidence of it. It is observable not only around us, but in us as well. We need only examine our hearts and admit to the presence of those elements which, out of a sense of shame, we dare not make known to others.
Perhaps evil and sin are not outdated concepts at all. Perhaps, in this regard, our forbearers had a more accurate world-view when it came to deviance and human nature. Perhaps we are generally uncomfortable with these terms because they expose and reveal the ugliness within, the ugliness we labour to suppress and conceal, and that this too is unsettling. And perhaps the quest for salvation from evil and sin is indeed a worthy one.
The immediate assumption that mental instability is at the core of every heinous act, by virtue of the heinous act itself, has inevitably led to successful insanity defences that are well-deserving of public outrage; such as the case of Guy Turcotte who stabbed his children to death as they cried and pleaded with him to stop (perhaps we’ll get it right the second time around).
Evil is real, and every person has the responsibility to master it. We must hold our thoughts captive and filter them according to what is good, right, and true. Moreover, every generation has the duty to teach the following generation of its existence, its false promises, and of how to avoid its woes and perils.
To continually deny the existence of evil is to doom future generations to an even more violent and decadent world than the one we now live in.
Kevin Richard is a freelance Quebec journalist and a Discourse Online contributor. This article was first published in the The Record, an English language, daily newspaper published in Sherbooke, Quebec.