David Brooks on Original Sin

David Brooks has a typically thoughtful yet frustratingly beside-the-point piece in the Times on the enigma of Robert Bales–the renegade soldier who went on a killing spree in Afghanistan last week. Bales’s friends and neighbors told reporters that they were astounded that such a seemingly decent man could have committed such an awful crime. Something terrible must have happened to him, they speculated, that caused him to snap–a not unreasonable assumption, considering the man’s four tours of combat duty and the traumatic head injury he suffered.

The author of The Social Animal, Brooks has been up to his eyeballs in neuro-science and evolutionary psychology; a deep thinker about human affairs, he is well-versed in moral philosophy. This gives him a different perspective. Bales’ friends think that way, he explains, because they subscribe to the benign view of human nature that currently prevails in our culture. Christians have always believed in natural depravity and cutting edge psychology bears them out. He cites a study by Professor David Buss at the University of Texas, who polled his students and found that a surprising number of them (91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women) harbored murderous fantasies.

These thoughts do not arise from playing violent video games, Buss argues. They occur because we are descended from creatures who killed to thrive and survive. We’re natural-born killers and the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so.

Terrible crimes aren’t as anomalous as they seem. It’s not that serial killers are more intrinsically homicidal than the rest of us, it’s that they are peculiarly prickly–they “have a high opinion of themselves that is not shared by the wider world….they develop venomous feelings toward people who do not pay them sufficient respect.” As frightening as this might be to contemplate, Brooks concludes that our sinful nature makes us more interesting than we would be otherwise–as C.S. Lewis put it, “there is no such thing as an ordinary person. Each person you sit next to on the bus is capable of extraordinary horrors and extraordinary heroism.” Life’s challenge is “to struggle daily to strengthen the good and resist the evil, policing small transgressions to prevent larger ones.”

I find this all rather breathtaking. How could Brooks have written an entire op ed piece pooh-poohing the outer circumstances that might have turned an ordinary person into a monster, when those outer circumstances potentially indict our whole country? It requires, it seems to me, an incredible, willful act of denial.

War is precisely the circumstance when rule-bound people are expected to set their personal scruples aside–to unleash their inner killer. Soldiers are trained to objectify their enemy so they can kill them without undue interference from their consciences; their job description (and their survival) requires them to go berserk on command. Whether they thought Lieutenant Calley guilty of war crimes or not, most people back in 1969 recognized that the most excruciating horror of My Lai was its resemblance to acts of supposedly “legitimate” warfare. If the military routinely burned villages to save them, if civilians became legitimate targets when they were said to support the Viet Cong, then who was to say that Calley hadn’t been following orders as he said he had? The atrocities at My Lai called the premise of the whole war into question.

Bales might or might not be an Everyman, but the big issue isn’t what was in his heart when he was a toddler (social science teaches us that the most violent epoch of life is age 2, according to Brooks) or at any time when he was still a civilian. Unless Bales’ defense completely turns on diminished capacity, it will be impossible to put him on trial without implicitly putting the war in Afghanistan on trial as well.

Which is why, I think, Brooks is so eager to change the subject.

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3 thoughts on “David Brooks on Original Sin

  1. Certain things don’t add up about this rampage. In the US Army, you can’t just borrow a Humvee and drive off alone in the middle of the night, away from your combat outpost. And the Afghanis are saying many others were involved.

    1. I’ll withhold judgment on that until I have more information, but as witnessed by the opposite poles of Lieutenant Calley’s and Jessica Lynch’s experiences, it wouldn’t be the first time the military tried to create a scapegoat or a hero.

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