The Boston Bombing and the Nature of Evil

Posted on April 26, 2013 by


Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, mother of the Boston Bombers, along with her husband, held a press conference yesterday to discuss recent events. She was asked by reporters whether or not she regretted the family’s decision to move to America. She lamented that of course she did, and said that “America took my kids away from me.”

Naturally, Tsarnaeva’s grief is real, and should not be dismissed or minimized. That comment, along with the events surrounding it, however, will continue to spur debate about immigration, assimilation, and Islamic radicalization. Many will likely throw cold water on the comment and, in some ways, rightly so. Just based on probabilities, America cannot be the explanatory variable given the relative lack of radicalization in our borders compared to the size of our immigrant populations from Muslim countries.

Also, her sons, no matter what transpired, made their own choices that appear to have ended in murder and mayhem in Boston. When the time came to take off those backpacks full of metallic savagery, they placed and detonated them–not a relative, not a culture, and not an Imam. No matter what took place, America provided benefits for the Tsarnaevs. They had access to education, scholarships, athletics, and the freedom to pursue and take advantage of those benefits. Casting America as a villain? That is a tough sell. In the end, critics will likely individualize the brothers Tsarnaev and their sins, as it should be whenever we consider the possibility of evil. After all, “big business” doesn’t oppress people, though people in big businesses may do so. The Third Reich, to use the extreme example, did not load Jews into gas chambers, but people did. The people bear the stain and the guilt of their actions, regardless of the context.

To a degree, this is one of the oldest of debates. Did I do it, or did my reality force me into it? This is a live question within the Christian community as we address economics, for example (though please do not mistake my comments here to equate evil and poverty). Are people poor because of their decisions or because of their environments? The standard Christian response has always tilted toward the personal decision-making process because of our conception of sin and salvation. In the current evangelical world, the standard answer is no longer assumed. Those on the Christian Left (think Jim Wallis or Tony Campolo or Brian McLaren) veer toward institutional explanations, while those on the Right (think Wayne Grudem or Pat Robertson or James Dobson) veer toward individual explanations. I tend to lean toward the right on this issue, but as a political scientist, I recognize how institutions and cultures and contexts can influence behavior, sometimes dramatically and sometimes unconsciously.

We would be wise, as believers, to admit the realities of both explanations, so long as we do so carefully. As a matter of culpability, I am responsible for my actions and I am held accountable for them, particularly within a salvific understanding of reality. I will be judged for what I do. However, we have to wrestle with the cultural and institutional contexts in which evil deeds occur. Contexts do not create evil, but they channel it. Institutions don’t construct depravity, but they foster and aggrandize it. Of course, contexts and institutions are human constructions, but they do take on organic qualities that we cannot ignore and they provide and create opportunities for evil that may not have existed otherwise. In short, sin is inescapable, but human institutions can produce and magnify particular kinds of sins as compared to other institutions. Humans are sinful and evil no matter their institutional or systemic exposures, but those exposures can generate particular opportunities and behaviors.

For example, we should not be surprised that someone who enjoys exercising power over others, even to their detriment, would become a tyrannical force of evil when put within the context of the Third Reich, where opportunities abounded and those behaviors were encouraged through positive incentives like recognition and advancement. If that same person had grown up within an Amish village, I am guessing we would still see that tendency work itself out in various ways–family, work, or religious gatherings,  but the scope and application would differ based on the institutional arrangement present. Both outcomes might be unmistakably evil, but they will differ in scale, at least perhaps.

All of this to say, I suppose, that the Tsarnaev brothers may have indeed been stolen by America since they appear to have been vulnerable and without communal and cultural boundaries, and thereby ripe targets for radicalization. But in recognizing this possibility, we must be sure to implicate them and their choices at the same time.