After the events in Boston, we cannot bring back the stolen lives. We cannot bring back the lost limbs or the lost hearing. And we cannot mitigate the infinite grief of the victims’ loved ones.
But there is something we can and must do: We must learn all the lessons we are able to.
Here are some:
1. The gulf between the decent and the indecent.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother, once told an interviewer before a Golden Gloves boxing competition: “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them.”
The reason Tsarnaev didn’t understand Americans was not primarily cultural. Tsarnaev came to America when he was 14 or 15 years old, an age at which the vast majority of immigrants to America have assimilated quite successfully.
Rather, the reason was that the indecent don’t understand the decent, just as the decent don’t understand the indecent.
One of the greatest insights I learned as a young man came from reading Viktor Frankl’s seminal work, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a Jewish psychoanalyst who survived Auschwitz, where nearly every member of his family, including his wife, was murdered. His conclusion: “There are two races of men in this world but only these two. The race of the decent man and the race of the indecent man.”
Those “races” do not understand one another. But more important than understanding the indecent is overpowering and, when necessary, destroying the indecent.
2. Any religion or ideology that is above good and evil produces enormous evil.
For tens of millions of Muslims today, Islam is beyond good and evil: The infidel may be decent, but that is of no importance to the radical Islamist. For example, on becoming a more religious Muslim, Tamerlan Tsarnaev gave up boxing, marijuana, tobacco, and even not wearing a shirt in the presence of females. Tsarnaev believed Islam forbade those things — none of which is an evil. But when it came to the greatest evil — murder (of non-Muslims) — here his religion was not only silent, it was enthusiastically supportive.
Likewise, Communists in the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere, and their many supporters in the West, raised the creation of egalitarian society and industrialization above good and evil. And Nazism elevated race above good and evil. The environmentalists who oppose Vitamin A–fortified rice in the Third World place their agenda above good and evil.
Unfortunately, most religious and secular ideologues find preoccupation with human decency boring. The greatest moral idea in history, ethical monotheism, doesn’t excite most people.
3. A victimhood identity produces cruelty.
The Tsarnaev brothers’ primary self-perception was that of being Chechen victims, and that combined with their religious convictions allowed them to blow up men, women, and children with a perfectly clear conscience. Even when victimhood status is objectively true — which it was not for these brothers, who were among the spectacularly fortunate few to be able to live in freedom and with unlimited opportunities — nothing provides people with as good a reason to commit atrocities as does a victim mentality.
4. Happiness is a moral issue.
Happiness is not an emotional state so much as it is a moral imperative. In general, those who act happy make the world better and those who act unhappy make it worse. This is equally true in the micro and macro realms.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was described by a cousin, Zaur Tsarnaev, in this way: “He was never happy, never cheering, never smiling.”