Empathy for the Devil
How should we talk about criminals in a way that acknowledges the humanity of those who commit terrible crimes—without detracting from the horror of what they’ve done? (I am thinking, of course, of CNN’s bizarrely sympathetic coverage of the Steubenville rapists.) The social stigma that comes with a criminal conviction—particularly for sex offenses—is real and deliberate. A criminal complaint has a caption like “United States vs. Smith” because whatever Smith is accused of doing is something that all of society rejects. The ostracization is part of society’s sanction.
With that said, there’s a big risk in seeing the world as made up of humans and monsters. A lot of little horrors are created by people who tell themselves at least I’m not like that. When we hear about people with good grades and promising careers who nevertheless manage to perpetrate that sort of crime it’s worth wondering whether some of that evil is inside us—and what we can do to burn it away.
I’m struggling to get to the point—so let me try it this way. Today is Palm Sunday, which commemorates the triumphal entry where the Good People of Jerusalem waved palm branches and shouted Hosanna. It took a little under a week for the crowd to turn. The same Good People shouted for crucifixion. We are not so different. We are not such good people as we pretend to be.