Wait a minute here: “weak and maladjusted”? This isn’t evil—that profoundly wicked thing that makes some fear to utter the word “Macbeth” inside the Barrymore. “Weak and maladjusted” is a modern psychological explanation, though with a ring of somewhat antiquated ’60s sociology. Weak and maladjusted is nothing to fear, so much as something to cure, societally, requiring not exorcism but therapy, good ol’ “community outreach” and the like. Move along, people, nothing to see (or fear) here.
You could see the schism over what to call the Boston act widening into a cultural chasm in the days that followed. There was the Party of Evil, emblematized by the Daily News: “Evil Backpack Duo” was the running headline on the following day’s coverage (oh, so the backpacks were evil too?). And the News delivered itself of a huge Sunday front-page hed: “INSIDE THE DEVILS’ LAIR” (which reported the two “devils” had left a “half-eaten sandwich” behind in their apartment when they left to kill—the shocking food waste apparently a key symbol of Satan’s presence).
For some reason the News, generally the more liberal tabloid in the city, made the New York Post seem restrained (if embarrassingly inaccurate at times). The Post was content to call its running hed on the Chechen duo “THE AMERICANS” while replacing the “C” in “AMERICANS” with a hammer and sickle—curiously anachronistic symbol of the Soviet communism or clunky tribute to the TV series?
Further countering the Party of Evil on behalf of the Party of Maladjustment was New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who downsized “maladjustment” in his blog post to mal-assimilation, while sneering at the rest of America for succumbing to “the national epic of fear” to which he was staunchly immune.
That Sunday, the Times front-paged a further downsizing from the vocabulary of evil, psychologizing the murderous Chechen bros with what seemed like existentialist anxiety, by speculating that “signs of alienation” may explain the crime. They were Camus and Sartre!
“Maladjustment,” mal-assimilation, alienation? Or evil? Then David Remnick scored one for the Party of Evil by using the word in this week’s New Yorker. He began by finding in Bro No. 2’s Twitter feed “a bewildering combination of banality and disaffection” but concluded with an unequivocal calling out of “their cruelty and evil” in a way that made it seem inexcusable by psychologizing terms like alienation and assimilation.
A word should be said here, I believe, about how President Obama’s initial characterization of the perps—even before they were ID’d—managed to thread the needle between the Scylla of “evil” and the Charybdis of “maladjustment.” The words he used for them, even before they were identified, were “weak and stunted.” Not “weak and maladjusted”—“weak and stunted.”
And I think because of its brief, blunt force it’s possible to underestimate the subtlety and sagacity of what he’s really saying in this, one of the many short-notice, tragedy-tinged, or anger-inflected public utterances he’s recently been called on to make.
Think of the many ways he could have characterized the perps before their identity was known. And look more closely at “weak and stunted.” At first all it seems is a kind of low-level insult to the unknown figures behind the Boston blast, and at the moment it was somehow necessary to a certain degree to give us some sense of striking back. But there was more to it than that.
He wasn’t just ridiculing them like a schoolyard bully. He wasn’t disparaging their physical weakness, their stunted physical stature, was he? That would be almost facetious. He wasn’t calling them stupid or intellectually stunted. Nor was it just maladjustment or alienation or assimilation problems, which probably shouldn’t be condemned as evil. Morally weak and stunted was what he was saying, legitimizing the vocabulary of moral condemnation rather than the psychologizing so many pundits were implicitly exculpating them with.