He was 19 years old. He went to an ethnically diverse, upscale high school near Harvard. He was a popular kid, a good athlete, very bright, well-liked. He graduated high school early and was studying to be a doctor. He killed three people, critically wounded dozens and injured many dozens more … We want him to be a monster! But “he was a good kid“.
Listening to the reflections on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from his classmates and others who knew him and looking at his graduation photo leaves me perplexed. The rage and anger that arises from my gut at the sight of the bombing victims somehow does not match the image that comes from the reflections of people who knew him. It does not fit neatly into my black and white compartments. I want to hate him, but I see a person who seemed like just “a good kid”.
Smart, popular, athletic, young … what happened!!!?
Josef Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin, Jeffrey Dahmer, Jack the Ripper all conjure up images of pure evil. Despicable, villainous, ugly, blackened souls, with no redeeming value. The depth of their depravity seems cavernous. We loathe them. We spit on their graves. We cannot imagine what possessed them.
We are regular human beings. We have our faults, but we would never….
How could this kid have placed a bomb filled with shards of wicked, deadly metal at the feet of an eight year old boy and his family waiting for their mother and beloved wife and just walk away? He went to college classes the next day! He had everything going for him in this land of opportunity – so different from the war torn, brutal landscape of his native Chechnya. He was in the Promised Land. How could he have been so stupid! So ungrateful for the privilege that was his. What possessed him to place a bomb in a crowd of innocent people!!!?
Dzhokhar’s father said, “My son is a true angel ….” His mother said he must have been set up. A girl who had a crush on him recalled, “He’s smart, funny. He’s definitely a really sweet person, very kind hearted, kind soul”. Another friend said, “He was nice. He was cool. I’m just in shock.” Still another friend commented, “I don’t understand what the hell happened, what set him off like this.” (As reported in Yahoo News) How did Dzhokhar Tsarnaev turn from an angel with a kind heart to a demonic, cold blooded killer?
I heard Elie Wiesel speak when I was in college. He is a holocaust survivor. He was 15 when he was removed from his home, put on a train and suffered at a concentration camp. He watched friends, family and neighbors become emaciated with starvation and die in a slow, calculating horrific way. The ones who survived were periodically and systematically gassed in groups and buried in mass graves. How many people does it take for a country to round up and kill millions of Jewish people? Does it take thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? Were all of the German people evil? Why did they not cry out and stop the slaughter?
Elie Wiesel offered an answer. I will never forget it. Every person has in them the capacity to do great evil and great good. It is in ALL of us. Given the right combination of life circumstances, influences, impulses, upbringing, experiences, desperation, state of mind, lack of vigilance … We all must make choices, every day of our lives. None of us are either perfectly good or perfectly evil. We are tending one way or the other in the choices we make every day. If we think that we would NEVER do what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did, what about our next door neighbor?
If we think we would never do what the German people did, we should think again. We may be in danger of allowing another holocaust to happen. Elie Wiesel’s main point is that indifference is the precursor to evil – indifference is evil. Were there people in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s life who might have influenced him in a different direction? The answer is almost certainly yes! Were there people in Nazi Germany who might have stood up against the racial hatred that was Hitler’s propaganda? There were, but not nearly enough. Most people were indifferent and/or allowed themselves to be swept along with the promises for a better life – self-interest – rather than stand in the way of the tanks.
Of course, what we picture as “Nazi Germany” did not happen overnight. There were decades of difficulty, World War I, and a generation of people who lived in depressed, stagnant economic conditions. Hitler promised them hope and a better life. It is hard for us to understand now, in our comfortable lives, how the German people could have been so blinded to the evil that lay in the heart of Hitler; and not just Hitler, it surely took many hundreds of thousands of people to carry out his plans and many millions of people looking the other way.
Unless we recognize that we, each of us, are capable of great evil, we will not be vigilant to stop evil. We are also capable of incredible, self-sacrificing good. No one is purely evil or purely good. We are the sum of the all the choices we have made and will make, from mundane to life changing, including all the times we chose and will choose to do nothing, to be indifferent.
Elie Wiesel says, “Today’s wealthy are poor though they don’t know it. They can’t bring their possessions to where we’re all going.” Are we rich in love and good will for God and people? We must recognize that we are either tending toward that love or away from it. If we only cheer for the capture of Dzhokar Tsarnaev, clamor for swift and harsh justice and go on with our indifferent lives, we have not learned anything. There is a real danger, if the circumstances of our lives in this country and the difficulties in our own lives change and become unbearable, that we may, also, find ourselves swept along in self-interest and indifference in a direction we could never imagine today. The face of evil could become us.