November 21, 2015
A British judge is reported to have wept recently as he sentenced two murderers for a particularly vicious and sadistic killing. A reporter for the BBC apparently wept on air as he described the aftermath of the Paris massacre. I couldn”t help thinking of Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man. It was a satirical novel published in 1924 by Sir Henry Bashford, an eminent physician of the time, and it begins:
It is customary, I have noticed, in publishing an autobiography to preface it with some sort of apology. But there are times, and surely the present is one of them, when to do so is manifestly unnecessary. In an age when every standard of decent conduct has either been torn down or is threatened with destruction; when every newspaper is daily reporting scenes of violence, divorce, and arson; when quite young girls smoke cigarettes and even, I am assured, sometimes cigars; when mature women, the mothers of unhappy children, enter the sea in one-piece bathing-costumes; and when married men, the heads of households, prefer the flicker of the cinematograph to the Athanasian Creed”then it is obviously a task, not to be justifiably avoided, to place some higher example before the world.
Having written somewhat in this vein myself, I know only too well that what counts as higher example changes over time, and that these days the highest form of virtue is display of emotion over obviously appalling events”the more incontinent the display, the better. The corollary is that only a really bad man, in the Augustus Carpian sense, would refrain from weeping. Self-control is a sign of moral insensibility.
After the killings in Paris, many of the newspapers in Britain paid “tribute” to the victims, as they nowadays often do to the victims of murder. “Tribute” was the word they used, and it was the wrong one, for the victims had done nothing to deserve a tribute (except, perhaps, those who acted bravely or laid down their lives for the sake of others, but this was not what the newspapers meant). For once, the victims were victims and nothing else; they had done nothing to bring their fate upon themselves either by good actions or by bad. To pay tribute to them was to imply that the victims were meritorious in some special way, and that therefore if the people who had been killed had been less good, the crime would have been that much less heinous than it actually was. But the crime was of killing people, not of killing good people. It was perfectly right that the victims should be commemorated, but not paid tribute to. This is a small but important distinction.
The mother of two of the Paris terrorists, one of whom was a suicide bomber, demonstrated how far she had assimilated to contemporary Western culture from her native Algerian, and how well she understood it, when she said that she was sure that the son who blew himself up with explosives in his vest did not intend to kill anyone and acted in the way he did only because of stress. This combines two important modern tropes: that stress excuses all, and that irrespective of someone’s actual conduct, however terrible it may be, there subsists within him a core of goodness that is more real than the superficial badness, such as taking part in mass murder.
It is perfectly true that most of us are not at our best when we are plagued by anxiety and frustration, when we have a hundred things that claim our attention, when we are worried for our jobs, children, careers, and so forth. But most of us are also aware that if we excuse our own ill behavior on these grounds (as we all tend to do initially whenever we know that we have behaved badly), there is no end to that ill behavior. And, after all, most of us have found it comparatively easy to avoid killing other people by not wearing garments full of explosives in the first place, however severe our stress. None of us, I surmise, has ever said, “I feel so stressed today that I want to put on a jacket of high explosives and blow myself up near, at, or in a restaurant or a cafÃ© or a football stadium or a concert venue.” Indeed, most of us would think that to dress up in explosives was a sign of a rather severe moral defect that went quite deeper than a response to the stress of the moment.