Over at the New York Times, columnist David Brooks uses the unfortunate story of Robert Bales, the man accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians, as a jumping off point to talk about conflicting worldviews.
As Brooks notes, the notion that humans are inherently good is not just flawed; it also leads to confusion when someone good does something bad. The concept of original sin is probably a more realistic worldview. Ultimately, Brooks concludes that, “Robert Bales, like all of us, is a mixture of virtue and depravity. His job is to struggle daily to strengthen the good and resist the evil, policing small transgressions to prevent larger ones.”
Brooks may be right that we all have the capacity for great good and/or great evil. But while this is an interesting debate, I’m not sure it fully explains what happened in Afghanistan. For one thing, Brooks’ argument seems to assume bad behavior is always a conscious decision.
This is not giving into temptation, it’s losing your mind!
My guess is that Bales might have lived his entire life peacefully, had he endured only three tours of duty. (This, of course, does not absolve him of his sins, but the notion that he should have simply struggled daily to fend off his demons seems naive.)
In the real world, post traumatic stress, drugs (even legal ones like sleeping pills), alcohol, etc., can have unbelievable consequences. They can make good people say or do things they would never in a million years say or do.
This doesn’t mean we should look the other way; we shouldn’t. And it doesn’t mean there aren’t people — even people who seem “nice” — who knowingly go over to the dark side, lured by temptation, greed or avarice.
But it might help us understand why some of the people we love sometimes do things completely out of character. And it probably means we ought to reconsider our policies regarding multiple deployments.