The Difference Between Sin and Circumstance

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"A sin," wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge, getting to the dead center of all human stories, "is an evil which has its ground or origin in the agent, and not in the compulsion of circumstances."

Two possibilities, therefore: A sinner—well, we don't say "sinner" much anymore, let's say "criminal" ....or, better, so as not to prejudge anyone, just say "person"— either chooses evil of his own free will, or else, is not really guilty at all, no matter how grisly the crime, because he was acting only under the "compulsion of circumstances."

Line up two cases of multiple murder—the executions at a Wendy's in Queens, N.Y., last year, and the post-partum drownings in Houston last week—and see where you would draw the Coleridge line.

1) Late in May, 2000, two men walked into the Wendy's on Main Street in Flushing at 11 p.m., just before closing time. After the last customers had left, one of the men, who had once worked at the Wendy's, went downstairs to the manager's office, and announced a robbery. The six other workers in the restaurant were forced downstairs, where they were tied up, their mouths sealed with duct tape, and plastic bags placed over their heads. The two robbers ordered the workers into a walk-in refrigerator. There, the workers were instructed to kneel, and, one by one, were shot in the back of the head.

The murderers wanted to leave no witnesses. Their motive evidently was robbery. They got $2,300. One of the workers survived. Police arrested two men, named Taylor and Godineaux, and charged them with the executions.

2) The other day, Andrea Yates, a Houston housewife with a history of post partum depression, killed (would we use the word "executed" here?) all five of her young children by drowning them, one by one, in the bathtub. Then she called her husband at work and said he had better come home.

Where do we draw the line? Who was the evil agent, and who was acting under "the compulsion of circumstances?"

My entirely conventional impulse would be to go easy on Andrea Yates as one acting under the compulsion of circumstances; and to be enraged and punitive about the cold-blooded Wendy's executions.

But on the World Socialist Web Site, I learn that Taylor and Godineaux were also acting under the "compulsion of circumstances." Taylor "was nearing 40, and still stuck with low-paying fast-food jobs. His increasing demoralization could not have been unrelated to the dead end he found himself in, while from every radio, television and newspaper there issued declarations that everyone had never had it so good."

The World Socialist view ponders "the tremendous social tensions, the growing polarization between the rich and poor, the cult of wealth and competition in which the signal is given that almost anything is permitted in the race for the fast buck. In the absence as yet of any alternative perspective of collective struggle and human solidarity, individual 'success' is everything and everyday life becomes increasingly brutalized."

The slipperiest slope is the one that begins, "Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner." To understand everything is to forgive everything. Put Jean Valjean on the moral sliding board. Instead of stealing candlesticks, have him line up seven people in a basement and shoot them in the head. You might have to rewrite Les Miserables a little. A realignment of sympathies will have occurred as to who is the innocent victim in the case.

Besides, Taylor and Godineaux were not "poor" by any standard. And mass murder is not justified by seeing things you want on television and not being able to afford them.

As for the case of Andrea Yates, it seems to me an awfulness that somehow drifts outside the limits or the relevance of justice—a failure of nature, like the scrambled instruments of whales that relentlessly swim onto beaches, to drown themselves in the air.