Crime and Punishment

Nearly one week on from the shootings in Newtown, and a quick review of the public conversation regarding gun laws reveals both the worthily impassioned words of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the thoughtful reasoning of journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. I recommend both (through the magic of Google search, of course).

Religion in the Balance will leave the gun control policy debate to others. Of some interest to us is the fact that a few people (Lindsey Fitzharris in The Guardian, for example), are questioning the reflexive application of the descriptor “mentally ill” to Adam Lanza– questioning, in other words, the thought process that automatically assumes that if a crime is horrific enough, the perpetrator must be insane. Might he have just been evil?

This is where Dostoevsky comes back in.

In Crime and Punishment, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov murders an old woman intentionally, and then another woman too– a younger woman who, as bad luck would have it, arrives on the scene unexpectedly. Raskolnikov gets away with his crime for several days, although a character named Porfiry Petrovich increasingly suspects that Raskolnikov is the murderer. They confront one another; Porfiry lays out his thoughts about the murders:

“This is an obscure and fantastic case, a contemporary case, something that could only happen in our day, when the heart of man has grown troubled…. [T]here is a resolution evident here, for the first step, but resolution of a special kind– a resolve like that of a man falling from a precipice or flinging himself off a tower; this is the work of a man carried along into a crime, as it were, by some outside force.” (Crime and Punishment, the Coulson Translation, Part Six– Chapter II)

Even if Adam Lanza was “mentally ill,” his crime is “something that could happen only in our day, when the heart of man has grown troubled”: a blind, consuming, raging violence that ends in suicide. This is often– although not always– the pattern of these shootings: the rage that goes indiscriminately outward to innocent victims, ends by being turned inward to the intolerable, shame-saturated self. They end in suicide.


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