Beyond redemption?

A fine piece from Norman Geras blog about the Boston Marathon:

A writer at the Scientific American looks at what happened at this year’s Boston Marathon and sees what he calls ‘an unmistakable beauty’. You read that right; it isn’t a misprint. For it’s not the act of terrorism and the deaths and injuries resulting from it that Adrian F. Ward is referring to in so characterizing what happened. No, it is, rather, the responses prompted by the crime: people showing concern for one another; rushing to help without care for possible danger to themselves; individuals giving blood; behaviour patterns that ‘transcend us-vs-them ways of thinking’; testimony, all in all, to the altruistic impulses in human nature. It is the ‘immense capacity for human goodness’ that moves Ward to write in the terms he does.

I have no desire to make light of any of this. It is entirely proper to remind people of the good of which we are capable, and it is especially apt to do so in the face of acts of wanton criminality and wickedness. Even in the most extreme circumstances, human courage and compassion are there to resist the evils perpetrated by some human beings against others. I have never accepted the argument, for example, that it is wrong to focus on Holocaust rescuers, wrong because that is to suggest there was a good side of the story when the overwhelming weight of things was in fact otherwise. But there was a good side; even there – and even in the death camps – however reduced it was by the force of Nazi barbarism.

So I have no quarrel with Ward’s effort to balance the picture of the crime done in Boston with the positive social responses it evoked. Yet it is the balance that is everything, and Ward gets it wrong. He concludes by saying that the reactions of ordinary people in Boston ‘offer the hope, at least, that the good in people will always overcome the bad’. Unfortunately, it won’t; that is a manifest falsehood. The bad is neither overpowered nor washed away by any good called forth in response to it. The prematurely dead remain dead; the injured and the traumatized rarely recover fully from what has been done to them; the grief of those who have lost loved ones cannot be undone. And this is to say nothing of the other poisons that are invariably released into the social bloodstream: those who celebrate the crime, or make myths about the agents of it, those who insist that it wasn’t as bad as some previous crime (which is nearly always true), or who go into apologia’s thousand other modes. This is true of smaller crimes, as it is true of vast ones genocidal in scope.

To speak of the bad always being overcome is what truly makes light of things that should be properly weighed – makes light of the terrible permanence of grave wrong-doing when it occurs. This can never be put right; nothing redeems it.

We can – and should – write about, note, and celebrate the good that people do in response to a shocking event such as the Boston Marathon bombing. But, we cannot – and should not – pretend that good will always overcome the lasting effects of such an evil act. The effects are beyond redemption. And, presumably, so are the perpetrators.