In the aftermath of media coverage of heinous crimes, there is always some exploration into the nature of the perpetrator’s character. Acquaintances sometimes report having known there was “something wrong” with such-and-such a person, which gives us all pause as we consider how we can reach out and help those with similar mental health issues. Other times, the search for signs of mental instability, radicalization, psychopathology, differentness, seems fruitless. How could we have known? Were we all out of touch? Could we have discerned something wrong?
Are the elements of character that can result in choices to commit premeditated violent crimes discernible, at least in hindsight? Can we enter all the information gathered about previous crimes in a database, create the appropriate algorithms, and design an app that uses its powers of deduction to predict the development of criminal character?
In G.K. Chesterton’s murder mysteries, the amateur detective Father Brown takes the view that identifying the character flaws, motives, and even opportunities to commit crime can be best seen from behind our own eyes. It’s not merely about criminal psychology and powers of deduction. For Father Brown, understanding comes through imagining, remembering, mentally following the trail as it would unfold for him personally, were he in similar circumstances. This is why he is so drained by the process of detection–he has to come to terms with how closely he may resemble a murderer, how fine is the line between someone who only imagines committing violence, and one who plans and executes it. Father Brown also carries within him an understanding of human nature as revealed in the confession box, and knows that the “monster” that commits murder in present in some form in all of us.
Why some and not others cross the line, it seems to me, is not so much about an imbalanced distribution of God’s grace from some (“There, but for the grace of God, go I”), but is much more complex. The more we learn about what criminals have done, the more we sense that we all share some responsibility. It takes God’s grace, yes, but I think that grace plays out largely through human beings who live with their eyes and hearts open to others, and who treat encounters with other human beings as all part of God’s call to be a blessing.