In Eastern Canada we have been holding our breath as the RCMP (our national police force) scoured the city of Moncton, New Brunswick for an armed killer on the loose. Witnesses say Justin Bourque ambushed police officers, killing three and wounding two others. Anyone who knows how very far from the epicentre of Canada’s power cities we are will understand how surprising and upsetting this is. The city of Moncton was under lockdown last night until an effective search cornered the murderer and brought him into custody unarmed.
Social media and news sources have been filled with best wishes for Monctonians and prayers for the families of the fallen RCMP officers. Among some of these best wishes are statements that the murderer is clearly deranged and a psychopath. My wife’s first comment was that he must be insane.
I get this kind of reaction. This is the 18th police shooting in Canada, and right now students and families at Seattle Pacific University are mourning—as were people in California and Calgary more recently. We need some words to capture how inhuman this kind of act really is.
But—and I know this question will offend a lot of people—what if the Moncton Murderer wasn’t insane? What if he wasn’t a psychopath or mentally ill in any way?
What if the Moncton Murderer was evil?
As a culture we have slid away from any kind of conversation about evil. We believe that people are essentially good, but bent sometimes. And as we’ve come to understand mental illness, treatment, pathways to justice, and the great errors of retribution our judicial systems have made in the past, we may have gone too far. We may have come to the point where we medicalize all evil. As a result, there is no evil left in the world, and no way to talk about it. There is only mental illness. “Surely he must be crazy.”
I think this has two really negative effects.
First, as long as we pathologize all acts of violence, we are going to associate violence with the mentally ill. Our country—our civilization—is in crisis when it comes to mental illness.
We’ve known this for a long time. There is a chapter in C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, written by a medical doctor all the way back in 1939, addressing the great challenges of trying to treat mental illness. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) deals with mental illness on all kinds of levels without the typical caricature of “madness.” The problem is building.
Among the challenges the mentally ill face is the stigma of being mentally ill. Adding the connection to violence will only hurt those who are already hurting.
Second, as long as we describe mass murderers in medical ways, we are excusing their behaviour. There is a long legal history of giving people space to defend themselves on the basis of temporary or chronic insanity. Sir Launcelot du Lac, I just read, went mad one day and buffeted a good knight nigh unto death, so that blood ran from his nose. But he was excused on the basis of his madness, which must have been caused by some unheard of sorrow. This idea is hundreds of years old.
As we remember D-Day this week, and think of the sacrifice of millions of allied soldiers and their communities to push back against the Hitler regime, the temptation is to think that we are talking about a madman. Surely Hitler was crazy. In 1941 he knew he wouldn’t win the war, but he thought he could still kill all the Jews. If that isn’t insanity, what is?
But to call him insane is to give Hitler a physiological reason for his horror show. It is to medicalize the mastermind of the holocaust, one of the great mass murderers of history. It is to disregard the Shoah in its moral form.
It could be that Hitler was just plain evil. It could be that he had invested himself in small amounts of evil for so long that the good was lost altogether. Far from being a madman, Hitler may have clearly understood what he was doing, and did it anyway.
These most recent murderers may also be evil. It’s true, they may be pathological. Some may be sociopaths. I’m tempted to think so especially in the cases of the men killing children in China’s daycares. But they may have chosen a target, selected the means, weighed the risk, and executed their plan in the cool collected conscience of one who has chosen a path and will follow it through to its brutal end.
The Moncton Murderer may be evil.