Here’s what I believe:
No matter what an individual or group of individuals may use to rationalize or justify their inhumane, sociopathic, or psychopathic behavior, it’s a mental illness, a major malfunction, as it were, to commit such atrocities. Whether it’s butchering scores of strangers that beggars the imagination or the crime of passion under circumstances that some can understand, it’s a failure of ones humanity to inflict cruelty.
I’m relatively anti-religion, I’ve always been an atheist, I see no value in religion (for me), but lots of people are more willing to blame the religion itself for the crimes of its followers than I am. I can’t ignore that much of the goodness in the world is also attributed to religion. I guess I just have a healthy skepticism both ways – people who save and heal and give and cite their religion would have been good people without it and those who choose a path of violence would have done so without any “divine” inspiration. All religious belief is a form of delusion, some of it just works for us and the rest is a “perversion” of said religion. No, it’s all a perversion of sanity to imagine supernatural sky persons.
Or are we all really primal animals and all we need is a reason to become savages? That premise makes for some great stories from mythology to Joseph Conrad to The Walking Dead, but not everybody has it in them. In those stories that is often portrayed as a weakness, a failing. The inherently good and kind do not survive in the scenarios imagined. As a society we don’t even consider that view controversial. We understand it and ask ourselves whether we would “have what it takes” to survive nightmarish situations where violence is required. It’s just a given that in a kill or be killed situation we are granted immediate exemption and absolution from the laws of man. The laws of nature are understood to have naturally granted such absolution. Not just absolution but glorification! Can you be the King of the Jungle, the apex predator, the alpha male?
Such ability to “rise above” ones humanity and beyond our constraints in order to meet immoral force with “moral” force is subjectively accepted as a good. But to a point. These stories are hero stories and end with the hero having achieved a moral end through immoral means, and then retreating back to his/her normal status in society.
At that point where individuals actions go beyond the acceptable line of demarcation to where justice becomes vengeance or punishment and “lawlessness”, then the stories usually come back to a position of judgment and the simple hero becomes complex anti-hero and must meet an end that infers some moral judgment.
Judgment. Justification. It all comes down to those thorny, completely subjective values. In fiction or in fact, humans can kill for good societally accepted reasons, but not for reasons deemed anti-social.
I wonder if that’s just all just a dodge. It comes down to ego. One wants to believe that they’re capable, competent, adaptable survivors, above their goodness. These stories feed that vicarious desire to believe that we would make it to the other side heroically if we had to walk through a real hell. We want to believe we’re heroes who can answer the call, but know where the lines are drawn.
Can an inherently good person go over the edge to temporary madness to perform acts of justifiable cruelty to someone or something deemed deserving? Our entire existence as a civilization is based on the belief that the answer to that question is “yes.” The actions of soldiers, police and the justice system, in the case of the death penalty, have been predicated on that yes. You can live in a “civilized” society, but do horrible, immoral deeds that are granted “morally justifiable” status by your peers, all in contravention of the teachings of the most deeply held religious beliefs. Now that’s a conundrum for the average person socialized in the Judeo-Christian faiths, for sure. “Thou shalt not kill”, “Turn the other cheek”, etc. (forgive my shallow knowledge of religious texts, I’m sure there are even better examples but that’s what “etc.” is for now, isn’t it?).
This accepted contradiction, that it’s not always insane and inhuman to destroy keeps us groping for the justifications to meet evil with necessary evil. To comfort ourselves that we’re not susceptible to the kind of insanity that grips the murderously evil, we sell this idea that they were nudged to insanity by religious teachings that we revile and are completely not susceptible to. But I’m more inclined than ever to say that it’s always wrong, it’s always insane, it’s always a sell out of humanity to kill each other.
Unless it’s for meat. As that great savage Tom Colicchio says “respect the protein.”