Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev,19, are now known as the two men that planted bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, taking the lives of thee people, including an eight-year old boy. As I write this post (10:00 am, 4-19-2013) the events are breaking fast and furious on CNN. But what has been most interesting to see is the perplexity of the reporters. After hearing testimony from high school friends, a high school teacher and an uncle tell us what a normal and wonderful kid Dzhokhar was, Chris Cuomo, the on air CNN anchor, asked, “How can a person be so good and be so evil at the same time?”
What Cuomo and other CNN reporters where attempting to grapple with is what is know as the Problem of Evil. All philosophies, worldviews or religious faiths attempt to answer the most basic questions of life: What does it mean to be human? Where does evil come from? What can/should we do about it? According to the Western, post-Enlightenment narrative/worldview, people are basically good, and it is only mental instability (lack of rationality) or environmental influences (bad friends, evil ideologies, etc) that produce evil actions from otherwise good, rational people. So, the information from Dzhokhar’s friends and family is an anomaly for the Western worldview; and Cuomo’s question about Dzhokhar stems from the disruption of his worldview. Here is where The Walking Dead might be helpful.
The Walking Dead is a show on AMC that follows the trials of a group of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world infested with zombies. In this fictional world, ordinary people turn into monsters after they die from a zombie attack. In other words, it is believed that a virus is transferred to the living from the “walking dead” during the attack. Evil comes from outside us.
But by the end of the second season, the narrative takes a subtle and surprising turn. The protagonist, Rick, learns, and later discloses to the group he is leading, that all humans already have the virus within them. This virus simply activates upon their death, turning them into “walkers” even if they had not been attacked by zombies. Stunningly, the narrative tells us that evil is birthed within. The group, characters we have come to know and love, is no longer the same for the audience. These people are part of the apocalyptic problem in spite of all the good they do to combat the evil.
In this story we have an attempt to narrate an account of evil on very different terms than is offered by the broader culture. This story mirrors the biblical narrative surprisingly well.
According to the biblical narrative, humans were created good, but we became complicit with evil, bringing evil to reign in this world. God promised death for humanity is they made a choice to rebel, but humanity lived. Death was not necessarily just a physical death, but death was this awakening of the monster within each of us: the curse of wrestling the evil impulses within.
The disease of evil came to all of us; and we all became part of the problem of evil. We most acutely feel this when we recognize the gap between our ideal (projected) self and the real (hidden) self. The real self is often far from the ideal self; and we know that we are not what we long to be. We, also, keep this real self far from others and our own consciousness, but we feel the effects of our fractured selves. Our masks keep us in fractured relation to others, and we often work out this strange isolation in tremendously unhealthy ways, causing violence and harm toward others.
Now, I can hear the objection. “I would never plant a bomb and kill innocent people. There is something else at work in Dzhokhar that is not at work in me.” The problem is that, assuming the story told by his family and friends holds true, Dzhokhar is just one of us. He was a high school athlete, a good student, from a middle class family, a college student and a regular guy. I heard one student actually say he looked up to Dzhokhar because he spent extra time with him and helped him become a better wrestler. We actually feel better in cases like Newtown or Colorado because the perpetrator was mentally imbalanced. Those sorts of cases help us maintain our narrative that “they” do those kinds of things, but not “me,” not “us.”
But The Walking Dead is a powerful cautionary tale; and it may turn out that Dzhokhar’s story has brought this cautionary tale to life. And, if it is “within us,” then Cuomo, CNN and the entire culture needs to reassess how it narrates the problem of evil. Our culture needs to realize that our cultural story of evil is but a fiction.