What does an evil person look like? In the wake of the Boston Marathon Bombings, a not unexpected thing happened in the social media sleuthing for the perpetrators. As readers of popular sites like Reddit pored over photos of the marathon public, they began to highlight suspicious looking figures, and by “suspicious,” many meant bag-lugging figures of “Middle Eastern” countenance, or some other vague non-white descriptor. Some of course in both the mainstream and the alternative media insisted (hoped?) the bomber(s) would be white homegrown terrorists. But in both cases everyone sort of assumed they knew what evil looked like in this instance.
Then something strange happened. The photos of the (alleged) bombers were released by the FBI. Turns out the perpetrators looked a little like everybody’s diverging presumptions assumed they would. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev weren’t homegrown, perhaps, but they were sort of home-raised. They were Muslims, yes, but not Middle Eastern. From Russia’s Caucasus region, these fellows are literally from the place from which we get the word “Caucasian.”
Is this what evil looks like?
Tamerlan was a little easier for our know-it-all eyes to read. The older brother with more visibly evident militant leanings — YouTube clips, hearsay from attenders at the local mosque and even family, concerns from Moscow about terror links, that much-reported trip to Russia last year. But Dzhokhar? As my wife said, “He looks like just a baby.” Lots of people were echoing that sentiment. The very face of Dzhokhar — young, somewhat doe-eyed, moppy hair like every other teenage boy in my town and probably yours — demanded “patsy.” From the minute the two were identified, the speculation saw only his face and his place in the birth order and deduced he was coerced by his older brother, probably against his will, or duped somehow. Some suggested he was set up by the government. (No doubt they will continue to suggest this, but that’s for a post for another time.)
When the media began to interview Dzhokhar’s former teachers and current classmates and friends, the insistence became deafening: “He is not the type of person who would do this.” He’s laid back. He’s cool. He listens to rap music and drinks beer (plays beer pong, even!) and smokes pot and gets with girls, which means he is not a radical Muslim. Which means he’s not evil! Or so they’d say.
What exactly does evil look like again?
Certainly not like the typical college kid, right? But, then, I think we need only see what this college kid did in the immediate days after he set down a backpack near children in order to murder them. He went to the gym to work out. He went to a party. (Friends say nothing seemed out of the ordinary.) He tweeted.
I am inclined to think that even if you were coerced, duped, pressured to murder 3 innocent people (and a 4th a few days later) and injure many others, you would not act so nonchalant afterwards. Nonchalance about one’s evil actions is exactly the face of evil. And the idea that someone like a “chill” college kid could never murder anybody is simply ignorant. We know this from both biblical hamartology and real life. Just a few years doing pastoral counseling has reaffirmed for me that quote-unquote “normal” people can do some very terrible things. Just a few moments of heart introspection will affirm that I am — and you are — quite apt at murderous thoughts, at the very least.
What does evil look like? You and me.
And then there’s this: Nobody is beyond hope. Nobody is beyond redemption. There is no sin so great that God’s gospel is not greater still. Make no mistake: God is holy and just. It is not graceless to suggest that Dzhokhar’s older brother has already begun his eternal damnation. But it is graceless to suggest that that is only what can await Dzhokhar himself. Can’t he who once persecuted you become your servant? As long as Dzhokhar is breathing, there is time to repent and believe. For he who knew no sin became terrorism that we might be called the righteousness of God. If that offends you, I don’t think you know what the face of evil looks like. Or the face of love.
And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
— 1 Corinthians 6:11