What If He Is Actually Evil? Thoughts on the Moncton Murderer

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.

The Problem of Pain weeping CS LewisWe’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?

Adolf Hitler PortraitBut 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.

#PrayForMoncton

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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23 Responses to What If He Is Actually Evil? Thoughts on the Moncton Murderer

  1. robstroud says:

    I’ve become convinced that most of those who insist on denying the reality of evil and attributing everything to psychological disorders is due to… their fear of the terrible truth.

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    • There’s some debate on my facebook page about this, actually. The materialists (atheists) don’t believe in The Good One (and certainly not the Evil One), so their categories are different. But most people in our culture live between theism and atheism, perhaps as confessional theists and functional atheists.

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  2. Barb and Gerry Marsh says:

    Gerry and I read this Brenton and we agree with you. Very very wellwritten and yes we think you can just become evil one thought leads to another and soon all good is lost. Breaks your heart to think of all the familys. People that have mental illness dosnt mean they will become mass murderers.

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  3. Doug Rochow says:

    Sin is sin. Sin is evil. You can pathologize it. The original sin in the Garden of Eden was ingrained in all subsequent generations. In that sense, we all are capable of falling through with the evil desires within us. Fortunately, the great majority of people listen to their God-given conscience and do not act out their evil desires (see Romans 7). The good news is that God has already triumphed over evil through His Son, Jesus. Yes, sadly there will always be negative consequences of evil acts until Christ returns. What a glorious day that will be! The good news is also that even the “worst” of sinners can be saved and healed by the blood of Jesus Christ… look at the apostle Paul.

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    • I think I am saying, Doug, a couple of things:
      1. Due to wishful thinking, we forget about “the fall.” We know about it in environmental issues and social justice issues (or some of us still know that things go bad). But we forget about it day to day. Mass murderers put us in the place of evil, so then we have to reconsider our human potential.
      2. Our connection of mental illness with violence is a kind of evil, a kind of violence, an expression of our fallenness.

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      • Doug Rochow says:

        That is how I understood what you wrote. Many people have this illusion that “I can’t be that bad” and that “a loving God would not let someone go to hell”, and “if I do things that appear evil, I must be mentally ill”. All sickness and pain has it’s origin in the “the fall”; sin and sickness did not exist before then and all subsequent generations have carried this sin with them to the next generations. One cannot draw the conclusion that all mentally ill individuals will commit evil acts but it is conceivable that sin changes one’s perception of reality and can cause a myriad of mental illnesses and even manifest itself in physical ones too.

        The Good News is that if an individual acknowledges his/her sin to God and genuinely repents (takes Gods side in renouncing it and chooses to change), God is gracious and just to forgive the sin (and opens the doors to heaven). The problem is many of us love our sin too much and still expect God to be pleased with us.

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  4. I’m not certain that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. A sociopath may be without conscience, he may be “mentally ill”, he may have a defect in his brain, whatever, but he is very destructive, knows it, does it anyway, takes pleasure in it – is that not evil? The mistake is in considering “mental illness” an excuse. We have this idea in our culture that we should all be “free to do whatever we want”, then when some people want to destroy, and do it, we don’t know what to think. They must be “mentally ill”. It’s “not their fault”. Nonsense. When people do evil acts, they must be held responsible, whether it is a big action or a small one.

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    • I don’t know the answer to that Marc. Certainly the result of a sociopath’s evil is evil. She does evil. It is evil in our world. There is ultimate brokenness
      But I don’t know what responsibility the physiologically bent have before the universe. If they know it is evil or feel twinges of conscience, then they are not really sociopaths. So I don’t know the answer.
      In our state (Canada), we need to continue to hold them responsible.

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    • Doug Rochow says:

      I agree that the one who does evil must be held responsible. That is why we have a legal/penal system. God’s legal/penal system is much stricter than any earthly legal system. In His eyes, any sin (large or small) deserves the death penalty (the lake of fire in Revelation). Access to heaven is only granted if someone takes the penalty on behalf of that person. That is what Jesus did on the cross. However, a gift is not a gift if it is not received. That is why we must accept Jesus gift of dying on the cross for our sins as a personal “get out of jail free” card.

      Can a mass murderer do this? Absolutely.
      Can a mentally ill person do this? Absolutely
      Can we do this? Absolutely.

      To get an idea of what the substitution is like read the story of the death of Maximillian Kolbe in Auchwitz: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilian_Kolbe and the life that was spared: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franciszek_Gajowniczek

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  5. jubilare says:

    I think there’s a balance to be found, not in terms of truth, but in terms of function. Let’s see if I can explain what I mean by that. …the existence of evil, and the existence of insanity, assuming someone believes in one or both (I believe in both) can both be taken too far. If we deny insanity and use the label of evil, we are more likely to condemn and destroy than help, and where is the boundary where that is appropriate? If we deny evil and look, instead, to insanity, we may be ignoring, as you say, a monstrous possibility that needs to be confronted.

    So where is the line that makes us most functional? That is what I wonder. Maybe there are people who are, or have become, simply evil. Maybe they are not insane at all, but do what they do in full awareness. I believe there are such people. There are also, manifestly, people who do horrible things out of insanity. I know someone who has a psychotic relative (as in, has psychotic episodes involving auditory hallucinations) and if this relative were to lash out while under a delusion, he would need as much help as anyone he tried to hurt.

    We can’t, of course, even ask these questions, though, if we deny the possibility of the existence of evil.

    Like

    • Well done Jubilare. I agree with your sober assessment.
      On my facebook wall, there was a big discussion, including some of my past students who are mostly atheists or agnostics. They don’t believe in “evil” as a personal reality or force, though we’d mostly share the results of evil. So it isn’t a category for them.
      And I don’t know if this guy is truly or mostly evil, or if he is ill. It isn’t my call. But if a culture loses a stream of language–a category of evil other than mental illness–we will change how we treat the ill, the evil, and the victims.

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  6. Dawn says:

    As usual, you have written what I was thinking faster than I can sit myself down to articulate it.

    We also risk doing to evil what we do to mental illness, framing it in such a way that it is as far from our experience as we can make it. To describe Hitler or Bourque as monsters or “pure evil” is to also deny their humanity. We hate to admit that such horrific evil exists alongside compassion, intelligence, sense of justice, love for family, all in the same person because then…what if I identify with his experience? I will be rejected, too.

    So how do we acknowledge without excuse the presence of evil without shaming the mentally ill or using it to push something darker inside of us even deeper?

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    • I think we start with we–or at least I with me. My propensity for evil: to view programs as greater than people, to be tied to things, to be tied to things that others bled to make, to imagine myself as disconnected from the world and the cosmos–these evils actually have great potentiality for evil.
      To put it more bluntly, I can see how evil develops in a person because I see it in me.

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  11. Becka Choat says:

    Well said, Brenton. I haven’t heard anyone else mention the disservice done to those who truly struggle with mental illness by the now-automatic assumption that horrific acts are always committed by psychologically unbalanced people.

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    • Thanks Becka. It is a pet peeve of mine that when someone picks up a weapon, we put him in the same category as those who struggle to get up in the morning or have trouble categorizing the world around them.

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