Speak No Evil: Criminals Are Not Monsters

You’ve heard these words recently. You may have even said them yourself: He’s a monster. He’s a demon.

He’s evil.

With some widely publicized, particularly heinous crimes in the news the past few weeks- the hundreds of sexual abuse victims in USA Gymnastics and the school shooting in Florida, specifically- I’ve heard countless people use terms like the ones above to describe the perpetrators of those crimes. I find that troubling.

In his latest book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, Father Gregory Boyle make a wonderful point about crime and evil. When pressed to call the crimes that his gang kids commit “evil” he replies, “If I said ‘evil,’ I’d have to deny everything I know to be true about how complex human beings are. I’d have to embrace the least sophisticated take on crime and its roots to say that. So I can’t.”

I understand the impulse to want to call certain crimes and certain criminals evil, especially when they involve children or sexual violence or both. For a very long time, I called my father evil. After all, what kind of man sexually tortures his own baby daughter? He had to be evil right?

No. My father wasn’t a monster, or a devil, or anything else supernatural. He was simply a human being. He was raised in a violent, abusive household, he was mentally ill, and he had no empathy for other people. He made the terrible choice to hurt his family, which makes him a criminal- but that’s all.

When we talk about people like Larry Nassar, the sports medicine doctor who sexually abused hundreds of women and girls under his care, or Nikolas Cruz, the Florida school shooter, and we use terms like demon or savage, all we’re doing is mythologizing them. We’re making them bigger than they actually are, raising them to supernatural heights, and giving them more power than they actually possess.

Don’t do that.

Don’t give these people so much credit; they don’t deserve it. They are no more than damaged, sick human beings who did terrible things to other humans. Let’s leave it at that, and make sure they are held accountable for their actions while recognizing the reality that these two people are far less terrifying than they seem- because except for their choices, they are exactly like us.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:43-44