When Someone is Driven to Murder, Where Does the Responsibility Lie?
It’s been a very long time since someone called me a bleeding-heart liberal, a label that was never complimentary and always carried with it a connotation not simply of weakness, but of cowardice as well. To be called a bleeding-heart liberal was to be accused of a moral failure, an unwillingness to hold the line between right and wrong, good and evil. It was to be dismissed as someone who thought personal accountability for wrongdoing was trumped by the sociological or psychological explanation for why that wrongdoing occurred. I do not think this is true, and I wrote about it back in 2010, in a blog post called Killing Rage, which takes its title from a book by bell hooks and deals with the story of Omar S. Thornton, who killed himself after killing eight people in Manchester, Connecticut.
Thornton drove a truck delivering beers for Hartford Distributors. He’d been called into a disciplinary hearing on the morning of the shooting, Tuesday, August 3rd, after having been accused by company officials of stealing beers. They offered him a choice between resigning or being fired. Instead, he opened fire. When he was done shooting, eight people were dead, two were wounded, and he placed a call to 911 because he wanted “to tell my story, so you can play it back.” He’d been, he said, racially harassed at his workplace to such an extent that he’d had no choice but “to take [things] into my own hands and handle the problem.”
In my post, I tried to draw a distinction between the need to understand Thornton–assuming his account of racial harassment was true–and the need to hold him accountable for the murders he’d committed. As I did then, I recognize now the difficulty in making this distinction, since acknowledging that someone like Thornton might also have been a victim can make it feel like we are placing him on the same level as his victims. It can make it feel like we are forgetting the fact that the people he killed no longer exist because of him, and so I will say again what I said back in 2010. Since I do not want to lose sight of the fact that those eight people are gone, I would like everyone reading this to pause here and go read “Remembering Lives Lost in a Warehouse Rampage,” an article in The New York Times that memorializes their lives.
Nature VS. Nurture
That act of remembering, however, important as it is, is not an adequate response to the question raised by the fact that Thornton’s actions may have their own internal logic. For if the murders he committed are at least one logical consequence of the depredations of racism; if, to put it another way, the racism he experienced turned him into a man capable of committing such murders; if, in other words, the racial hatred he could not escape made him the enraged and murderous Black man our racist stereotypes teach us to fear, then how responsible is he really for the fact that he became that man and what does it say about us if we are unwilling even to ask that question? (Which, I would add, is a very different question from asking how responsible he is for the lives he took.)
Broadly speaking, of course, this question is part of our ongoing debate about nature versus nurture. In other words, was Thornton-the-murderer primarily a product of his environment or was the choice that he made to kill something to which he was predisposed by the genetic facts of his birth? Or was it a combination of both? The answer you choose will have broad implications for the laws and policies you establish to deal with people like Thornton.
You might not think a 13th century Iranian Muslim poet would have much to say about this, but there is a religious version of the nature versus nurture debate, which might be called divine omnipotence versus the free will of human beings. Are we, in these terms, as moral people, the sum of our choices, responsible and accountable to God and other people for each and every one? Or are we what God has made and knows us to be, already and inescapably destined to live out the logic of our creation? Few if any people who believe in the monotheistic god stake out the extreme position on either side of this discussion–it’s not much of an issue for polytheists–which means that all monotheistic believers ultimately confront the same dilemma. On the one hand, and perhaps most obviously, if human beings really have free will, then it is logically impossible for God to be omniscient. On the other hand, if God’s omniscience in any way impinges on free will, then it is God, not us, who is ultimately guilty of the evil we do. Not only could we not help it, but God knew it was going to happen and did nothing to prevent it.
Sa’di captures this dilemma in a story:
An unjust king asked a pious man’s advice about the best way to worship God. “For you,” the man replied, “it would be best to sleep half the day, reducing by half the harm you do to your people.”
I saw a tyrant sleeping half the day.
“If sleep can clear his mind,” I said, “it’s good;
but if his slumber only keeps us safe,
he’s being lazy. His death is safer still.
On the surface, Sa’di sounds here like he’s writing a stand-up routine. The pious man’s response is precisely the kind of truth-speaking that the best comics use to make us laugh at ourselves while he or she exposes a serious social issue. Underneath that truth-speaking, however, is the assumption that the unjust king will always be unjust, that he is the way he is because God made him that way. So it’s not so much that he won’t change, but that he can’t. The pious man prescribes sin-reduction as the form of worship to which this king should aspire because he doesn’t think anything else will make a difference, not in the king’s life and not in the lives of his subjects.
Sa’di, however, then pushes the joke even further. Imagining a tyrant who does indeed sleep half the day, Sa’di suggests that if “sleep can clear [that tyrant’s] mind,” if it represents the possibility of real change, of true repentance–or, to put it another way, if it represents evidence that the king is exercising his free will in order to change–then the sleep is a good thing, an authentic form of worship. On the other hand, if the tyrant’s half-day sleep is only a preventive measure, if it does not result in the kind of change that would end the tyrant’s tyranny, then what, Sa’di asks, is the point? Why should he, or we, be satisfied with half measures?
These days, we confront this question, though we rarely put God at the center of it, when we debate the relative merits of, for example, life in prison versus the death penalty, or when we perform thought experiments that ask if the world would be a better place if someone like Hitler had never existed. The whole Terminator series of movies was predicated on this question, as was Minority Report. I don’t have an authoritative answer–I don’t think anyone does–but I know that we do ourselves an injustice if we fail to respect the full complexity of the question.