I have been reading and re-reading Dalrymple’s latest book, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality, since its publication. I think it’s my personal favorite of all of his books.
In the following excerpt he follows a long discussion of what he calls “the doctrine of the Real Me” with the specific example of a man who recently murdered four people in the name of Islam.
The article’s headline was “The Multiple Lives of Mehdi Nemmouche.” It started:
Who knows the real Mehdi Nemmouche? Suspected of being the person responsible for the killing of four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels on 24 May, he has several lives, without anyone knowing how exactly they are connected.
To help us understand and uncover the real Mehdi Nemmouche, now 29 years old, one of his childhood friends was quoted as saying that he was “a quiet boy, discreet, not at all aggressive, and who never had any problems with anybody.” Another school friend said, “He was a good pupil, he never had any fights, had friends, dressed normally in jeans and sneakers…” But for the criminal justice system he was a young man with a “solid history of delinquency,” with no fewer than seven convictions in ten years, many of them for robbery with violence. He spent five years between 2007 and 2012 in prison, in which he was “radicalized,” that is to say, he was given (and adopted) an ideological justification for his psychopathic behavior.
So who is the real Mehdi Nemmouche, the quiet, well-behaved boy or the delinquent young man who shot four people with callous and prideful indifference?
The question could only be asked by someone who thought that the answer mattered, and that furthermore there was a reality that lay deeper than the superficial act of shooting. If, for example, we discovered that Nemmouche had always been nice to his aged grandmother, should we conclude that the Real Him was a person with warm and generous feelings for old ladies?
Everyone has more than one facet to his character and conduct, all of them equally real. Hitler was nice to his dog and liked receiving flowers from small children. One cruel act is just as real as a hundred kind ones, and vice versa; which is the more significant is an irreducibly moral judgment, which no amount of psychological enquiry can help us to make. In my clinical work, I discovered that many violently jealous men strangled their consorts, and not for the sexual pleasure that asphyxia is sometimes said to confer on the asphyxiated.
“Does he ever strangle you?” I would ask my patients who had violently jealous male consorts.
“Yes,” more than one of them replied, “but not all the time, doctor.” (One had even asked her consort not to strangle her in front of the children.) I could not always get them to see that a minute of strangulation was more significant than an hour without: but at least it was their decision to take. But if they were killed, it would be no defense of the killer that they had accepted his previous strangulations, or that he had spent the vast majority of his life not strangling anyone.
The doctrine of the Real Him is a watered-down secular version of Christian redemption, with Man in the place of God. Inside every person there is a core of goodness that is more real, more fundamental, than any evil act he might have committed, and which it is the purpose of punishment to bring to the surface. That is why punishment is now believed, by all right-thinking people at least, to be therapeutic, which is to say redemptive, in purpose and intention. The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that whole-life sentences to prison are against Man’s fundamental rights because they eliminate the possibility of repentance and redemption (known in the trade as rehabilitation). Thus, the judges of a court that is supreme in matters relating to supposed human rights for a continent on which, within living memory, tens of millions of people have been systematically starved or abused to death or put to death industrially on an unimaginably vast scale, could conceive of no crime so terrible that the person who committed it was beyond earthly redemption. On this basis someone like Himmler, had he not committed suicide, or Beria, had he not been shot by his erstwhile colleagues, would have been eligible for parole, provided only that they showed themselves reformed characters by, for example, making toys for children or Braille books for the blind. (A serial killer really did once upbraid me in print for suggesting that he – who three decades earlier had kidnapped at least five children, sexually abused and tortured them to death, then buried them in a remote place in the moors – should never be released from prison, on the grounds that he now spent much of his time making Braille books for the blind, which was more, he claimed, than I had ever done to help anyone. In other words, he had redeemed himself, and canceled out the torture and murder of five children, by subsequent good works, thus expressing the Real Him; and, in the words of the commonly used cant phrase, he thereby had paid his debt to society, as if good and evil were entries in a system of double-entry bookkeeping, so that if one did enough good works in advance, one would have earned the right to torture and murder five children.)
Men can change; this is their glory and their burden, for it is precisely the capacity to change that renders them responsible for their actions; but what they do may be irreparable.
Copyright 2015 Theodore Dalrymple