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Evil: the label and the reality

KEVIN HARGADEN  ::  One of the most-read stories on the Irish Times website this year is a long account of the Ana Kriégel murder trial by Conor Gallagher ». The tragedy of the teenager’s death caught people’s attention. It would be wrong to dismiss that interest as yet more prurience in our age of tabloid ethics. There were elements of the story – especially around the ubiquity of pornography – that are too rarely considered in Irish society. And fundamentally, there is an entirely understandable interest born out of sympathy for Ana, and her family.

In this case, people are reticent to discuss the details of the crime, but conversation commonly turns to the criminals. Clashing and contradictory ideas tumble out in such discussions. Many people are disturbed by the idea that ones so young could commit so heinous an act. Moments after wondering at how mere children could be guilty, the same adults will pronounce that the perpetrators should be locked up and the key thrown away. That the diminished capacity of childhood and the maximum sentencing of life-means-life do not fit coherently together is rarely acknowledged.

The Irish literary critic, Terry Eagleton, published a fascinating little book in 2011 entitled On Evil. It begins with a reflection on a case that has superficial similarities to the Kriégel case. In 1993, James Bulger, a two-year-old boy from Liverpool, was murdered by two 10-year-olds. The case grabbed the attention of the public in a similar fashion. It was an early example of the use of CCTV to prosecute a case. Grainy footage of the murderers leading the toddler out of a shopping centre were replayed constantly on news broadcasts.

As with the more recent Irish tragedy, a recurring topic of conversation at the time was how children could be responsible for such evil. The belief in the innocence of the young is obviously deeply ingrained in our culture. We can perhaps trace this commitment through the thinking of the 18th century Romantic philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who insisted that we are born as blank slates; there is no badness in us to begin with. (That Rousseau fathered five children and abandoned them all to orphanages seems like an important data-point for anyone considering adopting his perspective!)

Rousseau is obviously far removed from Augustine, who (in)famously reflected on his own moral state as a child. He remembers himself crying for milk (one suspects Gus didn’t actually have such memories and was instead employing some artistic licence) and wonders:

What then was my sin at that age? Was it perhaps that I cried so greedily for those breasts? Certainly if I behaved like that now, greedy not for breasts, of course, but for food suitable to my age, I should provoke derision and be very properly rebuked. My behavior then was equally deserving of rebuke.

For the modern person, the child is an innocent. For the Enlightenment philosopher, the child was waiting to be formed. For the Classical theologian, the child was innocent only in their body, their mind already curved inwards in greed and impatience. One suspects Augustine would not have shared our moral shock at these modern crimes. In that, he has common ground with Eagleton.

For Eagleton, the surprise is not that a child could commit horrid crimes, but that they do not commit them more commonly. “Children, after all, are only semi-socialised creatures who can be expected to behave pretty savagely from time to time.” He cites William Golding’s Lord of the Flies as a reliable source. The plot of that classic tale is that if you leave a bunch of boys unsupervised on an island, within a week, full-scale war would be the consequence. An adult, Eagleton posits, should have a keener moral imagination, informed by greater experience giving rise to deeper empathy and stronger impulse control. If we were thinking clearly, should it not shock us far more that grown adults are not uncommonly known to commit murder in cold blood!

Eagleton puts his finger on why it is that we can veer between the two apparently exclusive claims about the intrinsic goodness of children in general and the specific need to punish and isolate these criminal children in particular. The clarity of Augustine’s position (whatever one might say about its lack of charity!) is rare. We more commonly find our ideas about childhood confused. Eagleton cites the example of a police officer involved in the Bulger investigation who “declared that the moment he clapped eyes on one of the culprits, he knew that he was evil.” Quipping in his customary fashion, Eagleton quickly adds “This is the kind of thing that gives evil a bad name.”

As Eagleton reads our cultural obsession with criminal children, the reaction that literally demonises a child – as has commonly been done with regards to Boy A and Boy B – is a protective measure. The goal is not to protect the victims, or potential victims, and certainly not to protect the victimisers. The desire to scapegoat and punish the child who does grave evil arises from a desire to protect the society that made that child possible. We need not squander time reflecting on the profound questions posed to our society by the viewing habits of Boy A, or the conduct of Boy B under questioning. Social conditions blur into the background as we leap to declarations of evil.

There is a theological problem here, that Eagleton identifies. Evil functions in these conversations as a force that is:

Beyond comprehension. Evil is unintelligible. It is just a thing in itself, like boarding a crowded commuter train wearing only a giant boa constrictor. There is no context which would make it explicable.

When we declare Boy A and Boy B evil, we intend to issue a damning judgement against them. But we also intend to declare a full exoneration of ourselves. “Evil” in such conversation, is a code word for that which has no cause, that which arises inexplicably out of some void. It is a word that we use to slice those who are guilty away from those who are innocent. Children are good. These boys are evil. Therefore these boys are no longer to be categorised as children. Lock ‘em up and throw away the key!

There is, of course, an obvious circularity to this kid of thinking. If the murderers are intrinsically evil, inescapably corrupt in their essence, they are therefore absolved of responsibility. As Eagleton sums it up, “If the young killers of the toddler could not help being evil, however, then the fact is that they were innocent.” If they are determined by evil, they have no freedom for the good. The entire edifice of criminal justice collapses under this logic.

I come from the same town as Ana. People were deeply upset by the tragedy. Parents expressed their fears to me that something like that could have happened to anyone, it could have been their child.

They never mean that it could have been their child who committed the crime. The language of “evil” is effective in severing the perpetrators from all other children. They are now a species on their own. Empathy is no longer demanded. Talk of rehabilitation can be dismissed as preposterous. Justice is reduced to punishment.

What was done to Ana was evil. My reaction to it is one of visceral anger and burning sadness. But as Pope Francis has warned us », the move from describing crimes as evil to describing the criminals themselves as evil is the “culture of the adjective”:

We put labels on people: “this one is like that”, “this one did that thing, and that’s it”, and he has to bear this for the rest of his days. That’s how people are who mutter – the gossips – they are like this. And labels ultimately serve only to divide: good people over here, and bad ones over there; the righteous over here and sinners over there.

And this, Jesus does not accept; this is the culture of the adjective; we delight in “adjectivizing” people, it gives us delight: “What is your name? My name is ‘good’”. No, that is an adjective. “What is your name?” Go to the person’s name: Who are you? What do you do? What dreams do you have? What does your heart feel? Gossips are not interested in this; they are quickly looking for a label to knock someone down off their pedestal. The culture of the adjective which discredits people. Think about that so as not to fall into what society so easily offers us.

Children are not perfectly innocent. We show them no love when we engage in such sentimental fantasies. There is probably less badness in a child crying at the breast than Augustine, in his full polemical force, suggests. But there is deep and profound badness in our society. Our criminal justice system is influenced far too heavily by the culture of the adjective, which seeks to mark out those of us who are good and cast off those who are bad and evil and without hope. The murder of Ana Kriégel was a grave evil, but we do her no honour by allowing our distress inform yet more of the easy labelling which lets ourselves off the hook.