Awfully Worded

Senseless. Evil. Silver Linings. Our Misguided Terms of Terror.

We tossed around a lot of words last week after the Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers. But William Giraldi asks: what do we really mean by them?

04.23.13 7:30 PM ET

Senseless. The president said it during his addresses to the nation; newscasters said it at the scene; people on the streets of Boston could be heard crying it into cell phones: a senseless act of terror. But the sadism on Boylston Street at the Boston Marathon was the opposite of senseless—in fact it made great swaths of sense to the two sadists who inflicted it upon us. It might appear senseless but that is appearance only, our bafflement before such barbarity. The terrorist is among the most sensible of killers because he comprehends the difference between correlation and causation: dismember civilians in a city of liberty and watch whole quadrants of that city shut down. This is where the terrorist parts paths with a mass shooter like Adam Lanza: he is no hair-trigger madman, no psychopath—madness and psychopathy would render him unknowing of his crimes. In his methodic preparations and clandestine deployments he knows precisely what carnage he aims to create.

The word we mean is useless. The slaughter is useless, for everyone involved, including the terrorist, and this is what makes his sense, his sensibility, so fearsome. Here the terrorist is aligned with the tantrum-throwing toddler: he doesn’t seem able to learn from history, to understand that, whatever his socio-political grievance or fanatical religious gripe, dismembering people on a city street won’t ease those grievances, won’t actually earn him what he wants, and every terrorist wants something other and higher than the mere dissemination of terror or the inconvenience caused us by bag checks. Some terrorists might be anarchists but no terrorist is a genuine nihilist. His act remains all means—havoc and death—and no ends. It remains sheer uselessness and waste because nothing changes; he is no closer to whatever debauched vision of utopia dances in his mind. For as long as the terror lasts, we are all rapt. In his novel Slouching Towards Kalamazoo, Peter DeVries wrote, “There is nothing like calamity to make us forget our troubles.” But the calamity passes and we all eventually return to the normal—or to the post-9/11 “new normal”—to the anxiety of the quotidian. Except the dead and maimed and their families: they are altered irrevocably.

Evil. It has no measureable weight in the world and yet, like its opposite, love, we know it when we see it, when we feel it. The term remains a handy tag we stick on deeds which in our beguilement or cowardice we cannot or will not confront. As a noun, in our society of science and medicine so far from the rabid superstitions of ages past, it is mostly dead except on days such as the bombing in Boston. Commentators everywhere resorted to the word, and also to its twin, tragedy, although the Athenian innovators of tragedy had a very different, much loftier notion of what constituted the tragic: the reversal of fortune brought on by a concussion of the accidental and the ordained.  Aeschylus would not understand our daily, haphazard tossing around of the term whenever something unhappy occurs, and he’d probably wince at the widespread popular redundancy terrible tragedy.

As an adjective, evil is preferred by those who wish to describe what seems to them beyond description: evil acts, evil men. The less able or prepared we are to comprehend it, the more evil an action is. Iago is such a transfixing portrait of evil exactly because his motives are forever murky. His most famous line is his last: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know,” but the problem, and the problem with evil, is that we don’t know enough to satisfy our eager need for explanation, for a way to wedge his malevolence into our worldview. The two sadists who butchered the innocent at the Boston Marathon of course seem evil to us, seem prompted by demonic influence not of this earth, and yet unlike Iago’s, their motives are unambiguous. That’s why the noun or adjective evil is ultimately a cop-out here, a way of refusing to attempt to explain the blackness at the hub of these men (and it is usually men, usually a masculine impulse that embraces the toxic stupidity of Islamic literalism). The term allows us to postpone or cancel altogether our confrontation with the word we must use: human. Devils or monsters did not massacre my fellow Bostonians: two warped jihadists did, and we know what jihadists want—we’ve seen their sinister work before.

The Marathon bombers, we are told, do not value human life. But every terrorist understands the value of human life—that’s why he takes it, because he understands its worth all too well. He doesn’t recognize himself as what we’d deem evil—he has a fourth-century philosophy but an achingly modern imagination. Coleridge wrote: “Dimmer and dimmer, as the generations pass away, this tremendous Terror—this all-pervading espionage of Evil . . . this active incarnation of motiveless malignity—presents itself to the imagination.” In other words: every era must invent its view of Satan. Milton’s Satan famously declares, “Evil, be thou my good,” and Richard III, in all his seditiousness and moral malfeasance, declares, “I am determined to prove a villain.”

Jihadists, too, are nothing if not determined. The bombs in Boston were meant for my family and yours, were meant for the Jeffersonian injunction we live by, for all of us who know that the forces of civilization and secularization are superior to those medieval agents of the barbarous and sanctimonious. You don’t have to be a chest-thumping patriot fond of the nitwit platitudes in country-western songs about America the Free to understand that the Marathon slaughter was in every sense about ripping away our freedom to congregate and celebrate in our city. If Hegel is correct in his suggestion that evil expands or contracts in proportion to freedom, we will fail at eradicating Islamic fascism, or white supremacy, or mass shootings. We will fail, that is, unless we opt to lessen our liberties.

We yearn for silver linings in this mess. That cliché was uttered much by Brian Williams of NBC as the triage was underway on Boylston Street: a silver lining that the medical tent was adjacent to the slaughter, that police and EMT were already at the scene, that the explosives were crudely fashioned and not capable of murdering more civilians. In an almost surreal confusion of the quantity killed with the quality of this cataclysm, there are those who wish to point out that only three human beings were slaughtered (four including the MIT police officer that was shot), and never mind that nearly 180 were horrendously mauled, that 20 of them lost their legs either on the sidewalk or in the operating room, and that some of them were children. As a rule, there are no silver linings in such atrocity; to suggest otherwise is obscene and insulting.

We yearn, too, for the emergence of heroes, and it’s demonstrative of their tremendous dignity that the first responders are always quick to repudiate this term, to deny its application: this isn’t heroism, this is my job. For Homer the hero was a battler who deals in death and seeks immortality through valor; for Pindar the hero was poised in glory between gods and men. The archetypical hero of literature embarks on a journey of enlightenment, on a quest or conquest, and our modern interpreters of the hero—Thomas Carlyle, Otto Rank, and Joseph Campbell especially—emphasize the mythical or symbolical quality of every hero’s plight. There’s usually an internal agon, a grappling with great dubiety before the hero figure can fulfill his destiny—Achilles’ withdrawal from the Trojan conflict, Christ in Gethsemane—whereas those women and men on Boylston Street rushed in to rescue the fallen with no dubiety at all, and this impulsive munificence is what strikes us as heroic today. But what we apprehend as heroism is really humanism, and you get the feeling that this is why first responders are so uneasy with the term: it’s not false modesty but instead an earnest assertion of our linked humanity. The cliché “anyone would have done it” is, like all clichés, not always true but it’s true more often than it’s false. Insofar as every hero of myth must be symbolical, those citizens and professionals who aided the hideously maimed in Boston are indeed heroic precisely because their actions represent the actions of us all. The juxtaposition is jarring before it’s confirming: the noble among us, in us, colliding with the most ethically degraded characteristics of our kind.

And we want justice. On the day of the slaughter the president assured the nation and the world that the sadists in Boston would feel the righteous clamp of justice. Boston officials proclaimed justice served after the death of one bomber and the capture of the other. But the word sounds more substantial that it actually is, as if justice will raise the dead, reattach limbs, solder torn arteries, calm the traumatized, siphon the blood from the sidewalk back into the bodies of the slain. It will not. The president and city officials mean punishment. And punishment—one brother is dead, the other will likely be executed or else incarcerated for life—is necessary in that it might mitigate slightly our fanged grief and, more practically, it removes two sadists from our midst. Justice is a crucial and beautiful ideal before bodies are rent to shreds on a city sidewalk. After that, it’s pure punishment—nothing solved, nothing mended.

In the first courtroom drama, The Eumenides by Aeschylus—the concluding play of his Oresteia—the goddess Athena exonerates Orestes of the crime of matricide. Her suggestion is that mercy should always supplant malevolence, but the sentiment rings hollow because the malevolence has already happened: Orestes murdered his mother, Clytemnestra, who murdered his father, Agamemnon, who murdered his sister, Iphigenia, in order to gain favorable winds to sail to Troy, where the Greeks engaged in genocide against the Trojans. There’s been a decade of rampant bloodshed by the time we reach Orestes in the courtroom, and his exoneration grates against our wishes, despite the tall fact that no verdict, no plea of god or man, can make right the waste and bring back the bodies of the dead.