Alterity, Sensemaking and the Death of Innocents

            I have been pondering for some time now the attempted murder five months ago of Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani girl who spoke out for young women’s rights. I have likewise been reflecting on last week’s murder of her fellow Pakistani and activist for the poor, Parveen Rehman. I saw the good news this past week that Miss Yousafzai, whom supporters call by her first name, Malala, has now returned to school in Birmingham, England, where she had been hospitalized while recovering from her injuries. She cannot return home to Pakistan since those who sought to kill her have announced their continuing intention to murder her should she do so. Nonetheless, learning of her recovery from her grievous gunshot wound to the head gave me a brief moment of joy. Sadly, neither I nor anyone else will savor such a moment for Parveen Rehman. Those who perpetrated the violence toward Malala Yousafzai have suggested they sought to kill her because she “promoted Western thinking.” A government investigation continues into Ms. Rehman’s death (few such efforts ever “clear” the crimes investigated in Pakistan), but it is already known that those who murdered her did so aggrieved by the fact that she was assisting the socially marginalized.

            One question that joins each of these tragedies is how those who undertook these deeply malevolent acts possibly could have rationalized them. How could one head out on one’s motorcycle with the sole intention of killing an innocent woman or an equally blameless adolescent? Those who carry out such actions seem always to be young men who rarely appear to act out of any volition original to them, but at the behest of others, so it may also be of moment to ask who persuaded them to do so, and how and why? Are these cases of the misguided leading the deeply unwise or unknowing? Or of evil or malevolence manipulating the weak? Or are these instances of some other phenomenon altogether? What profound need for meaning making is fulfilled for these individuals by committing these heinous acts? How do these actions help each perpetrator to order their world? What combination of reason and/or blind emotion or constructed hatred leads them to these unspeakable acts?

            I confess that irrespective of how much I ponder these questions, I just cannot grasp how one rationalizes the intentional murder of innocents in cold blood. I should also note parenthetically that my perplexity is not new. I likewise have yet to come to grips with the wholesale slaughter that occurred in the Rwandan genocide in which countless countrymen went off together singing to murder innocents (often their neighbors) each day. Nor have I reconciled myself to the Holocaust or Srebrenica or many other such horrors. That is, I realize the concern that troubles me so deeply in the current episode is not new.

            Nonetheless, it seems to me these issues are continually worthy of contemplation for they raise enduring questions. Do these individuals, and those who send them forth, act out of fear of the unknown or change? Do they fear a loss of power or place in their society, and act to retain it? Are they guilty, as one doctoral student with whom I work observed, of a profound arrogance of belief? Are those who kill somehow jealous of their victims? While I find some of these proposed rationales helpful, I am ultimately not persuaded by any of them and I frankly do also wonder, were I to accept them, whether they actually trivialize the horrific act they seemingly “explain” or “justify.” So I am left puzzling. This said, I sense this is an enigma of enormous significance for self-governance, for freedom and for humanity itself, and so I shall continue to reflect on this Gordian Knot.