Some Thoughts on the Motivation for the Marathon Murders
I’m continually shocked by the way in which secular theorists and so-called “experts” seek to account for or explain why people commit heinous acts of violence. The most recent example appeared in Wednesday’s edition of USA Today (April 24, 2013). The article was titled, “Tsarnaevs’ Deadly Brotherhood.” The sub-heading reads: “Understanding motivation requires examination of human need for belonging.” The author of the article is James Alan Fox, the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University in Boston.
Now, I’m quite certain Dr. Fox is considerably more intelligent and widely read than I am, especially in the area of criminology and public policy. And I’m not here to throw doubts upon the role that the “human need for belonging” might have played in the motivation of the two young men who allegedly perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombings. However, may I be so bold to suggest that another explanation is more realistic and true to the case?
Fox begins by reminding us how the younger of these two brothers was perceived by most to be a “good kid.” He even argues that despite Tamerlan’s growing “anti-American ideology” he “showed little indication of having the potential or the desire to commit an extreme act of mass violence.” Fox then wonders “why” would the Tsarnaev brothers have “allegedly engaged in such diabolical crimes?”
He suggests that “the key to motivation could lie not just in some anti-American sentiment but also in the brotherly bond itself.” This bond may have reinforced their negative beliefs about America. It is unlikely, suggests Fox, that these crimes would have been committed “were it not for the close brotherly connection.” Fox then proceeds to cite some of the most heinous and gruesome mass murders in American history, committed, at least in part, he suggests, because of the family or friendly relationships that existed among the perpetrators. “Whatever the motive for murder, each participant benefits psychologically from the sense of camaraderie and solidarity.”
Whereas Fox finally concedes that it may be justified to describe the marathon bombers as “monsters,” perhaps even as “animals,” he concludes that “the brothers’ motivation requires us to examine basic human needs for belonging and respect that are sometimes fed through criminal partnerships.”
What are we to make of this? In the first place, I’m not disputing that such “basic human needs for belonging and respect” might have played a role in why these brothers acted in the way they did. But when that is all one says to explain why they did what they did, something’s terribly amiss.
Might a better, more plausible, and certainly more biblical explanation be that the two men were “evil”? Yes, evil. Why is there such an aversion to the word? Could it be that most secular theorists from a variety of fields (whether criminal law, psychology, sociology, etc.) simply refuse to acknowledge the innate, fundamental moral depravity of human beings? Could it be that we simply refuse to acknowledge the reality of original sin? Could it be that we simply don’t want to own up to the fact that apart from divine grace the human heart is “deceitful above all things and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9)? Could it be that we have turned our back on the assessment passed by God just before the Great Flood, that “the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5; see Gen. 8:21)? Of this passage, John Murray writes:
“There is the intensity – ‘The wickedness of man was great in the earth’; there is the inwardness – ‘the imagination of the thoughts of his heart’, an expression unsurpassed in the usage of Scripture to indicate that the most rudimentary movement of thought was evil; there is the totality – ‘every imagination’; there is the constancy – ‘continually’; there is the exclusiveness – ‘only evil’; there is the early manifestation – ‘from his youth’” (“Sin”, in New Bible Dictionary, 1962).
Do we not read in Psalm 14:2-3 that fallen men “are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good”? Jonathan Edwards asks an important question:
“Why should man be so continually spoken of as evil, carnal, perverse, deceitful, and desperately wicked, if all men are by nature as perfectly innocent, and free from any propensity to evil, as Adam was the first moment of his creation, all made right, as [some] would have us understand (Eccles. 7:29)? Why, on the contrary, is it not said, at least as often, and with equal reason; that the heart of man is right and pure; that the way of man is innocent and holy; and that he who savors true virtue and wisdom, savors the things that be of man? Yea, and why might it not as well have been said, the Lord looked down from heaven on the sons of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and did seek after God, and they were all right, altogether pure, there was none inclined to do wickedness, no not one!” (Original Sin, 264).
The psalmist is forthright in declaring that “the wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies” (Ps. 58:3).
I find a far more plausible explanation for the motivation of these two young men in what Paul says in Romans 1:28. There the apostle declares that “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” The “what” that they do includes such things as unrighteousness, evil, malice, and murder (Rom. 1:29).
Finally, although more could be said, Paul’s indictment in Romans 3:9-18 is sufficient. There he describes fallen mankind in these words:
“Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:15-18).
Again, please don’t conclude from this that I find nothing of benefit or truth in Fox’s assessment of the marathon bombings. But merely describing it in terms of the “human need” for “belonging and respect” does not give sufficient weight to the fact that all men, apart from God’s redemptive (and common) grace, are wicked, evil, depraved, and prone to all manner of monstrous acts. At the bottom of it all, beyond the influence of religious convictions and family ties and the camaraderie of crime, I suggest that the perpetrators of this violence were motivated by the perverse pleasure they gained from inflicting pain and devastation on other people.
And lest you think that I fancy myself as morally superior to or at heart altogether different from these men, may I say with all sincerity, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”