The Right Opinion

People Are Truly Good at Heart? Sadly, No

By Jeff Jacoby · Jan. 2, 2013

Eleven years ago, al-Qaeda terrorist Richard Reid tried to blow up American Airlines Flight 63 with a bomb hidden in his shoes. As a result, air travelers to this day must remove their shoes to pass through security at US airports.

In 2006, terrorists plotted to destroy as many as 10 planes flying from London to North America using peroxide-based liquid explosives smuggled in their carry-on luggage. So passengers now must limit any liquids they carry through security checkpoints to minuscule containers sealed in clear plastic bags.

On Christmas Day in 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit by means of an explosive device sewn into his underwear. The government's response: full-body X-ray scans to detect even contraband concealed in one's groin.

Our irritating, inconvenient airport security rules are one reflection of a common view that the way to prevent evil in this world – in this case, the evil of jihadist terrorism – is to intercept the instruments evildoers use. Thus, if the 9/11 hijackers used box cutters to carry out their airborne atrocities, box cutters must be barred from subsequent flights. If other terrorists find other means of committing brutal acts, we bar those means as well.

This fixation on stopping bad things – as opposed to stopping bad people or bad behavior – goes beyond keeping air travel safe from al-Qaeda. On the international stage, it shows up in campaigns to reduce strategic arsenals and destroy nuclear warheads, regardless of the moral caliber of the governments possessing them. In schools, zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policies have been applied so rigidly, USA Today observes, that “kids have been kicked out of school for possession of Midol, Tylenol, Alka Seltzer, cough drops, and Scope mouthwash.”

More recently, the shrill demands for more restrictions on guns in the wake of the Newtown massacre have been a classic illustration of the phenomenon.

For countless people, especially on the left, it's axiomatic that Adam Lanza's bloodbath was caused by America's gun culture. Many angrily demonize guns and the advocates of gun rights; they are convinced that only an ignoramus or a moral monster could oppose tighter gun control. In an interview on CNN, Piers Morgan lashed out at the executive director of Gun Owners of America, calling him “an unbelievably stupid man” and seething: “You don't give a damn, do you, about the gun murder rate in America?” When the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre argued for more armed security rather than fewer arms, he too was drenched with scorn.

“Look, a gun is a tool,” LaPierre said. “The problem is the criminal.” But that can only be true if crime is rooted in the bad character, depraved values, or evil choices of those who use guns to murder. And that can only be true if men and women, by and large, are not innately good and kind – if decent behavior, like monstrous behavior, is a matter of free choice, not a hardwired instinct.

It is fundamental to the Judeo-Christian outlook that human beings are not naturally good. “The intention of man's heart,” God says in Genesis, “is evil from his youth.” To use the Christian formulation, man is “fallen.” All of us are tugged by conflicting moral impulses, and whether we do the right thing or the wrong thing is up to each of us.

Peace, justice, and compassion are not the natural human condition. With rare exceptions, criminal violence can't be blamed on external culprits. Murder isn't caused by poverty or gory videogames or low self-esteem – or guns. Nor are wars caused by nuclear missiles, or al-Qaeda terrorism by box cutters. We fool ourselves if we imagine that by fixating on missiles and box cutters we can avoid reckoning with the cruel side of human nature.

“It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical,” 15-year-old Anne Frank confided to her diary on July 15, 1944. “Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. I simply can't build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery, and death.”

Three weeks after those heartbreaking words were written, the Gestapo discovered the secret annex where Anne and seven others had been hiding. She died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp the following March.

The desire to believe, like Anne Frank, that “people are truly good at heart” is powerful. Sadly, history refutes the idea that human nature alone will make a good world. Controlling bad things may sometimes be prudent. But it is above all by controlling ourselves – by fortifying the better angels of our nature – that the struggle against evil progresses.

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is www.JeffJacoby.com).

8 Comments

Brian in Newport News said:

I recall one incident years ago in my hometown where an elementary school child was suspended because she came to school wearing a charm bracelet. One of the charms on that bracelet was handgun. You know, for being supposedly educated people, they don't seem too bright to me.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 1:44 PM

Army Officer (Ret) in Kansas said:

Anyone who believes in the general inherent goodness of the human heart hasn't been paying attention. It is more rational to believe in flying purple unicorns that can juggle while reciting Shakespeare.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 5:05 PM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA said:

Army Officer, The liberals are so unrational about anything that doesn't fit their agenda I wouldn't be surprised at anything they would believe. It is very apparent they have the mindset that when some mental case goes on a killing spree it just has to be the weapon that is responsible. It could never be because the mental case was out in public and not in a mental institution. The liberals have undermined the treatment of the mentally ill by pushing political correctness beyond reason. They have completely tied pychiatrists hands in dealing with those who are mentally disturbed. Better living through drugs is their mantra.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 10:16 PM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

" Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?---The Shadow knows!"Old radio programs were interesting.

Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 6:53 AM

rab in jo,mo said:

The concept that mankind is basically good is a tenet of secular humanism so it's no wonder that many of the responses to evil in the world is to blame the tool. So many of the brain-addled think that all they need to get through life is to be a "good person". This line of thinking leads to constant disappointment when people commit evil acts.

Conversely, as Christian we pray in corporate confession each week that we are, by nature, sinful and unclean, incapable of redeeming ourselves. The Law show us our lost and helpless state, the Gospel restores the hope of salvation and frees us from the burden of the law.

Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 11:21 AM

Linda in Tampa Bay FL replied:

very true Rab, and millions of children go to school everyday of their lives for 12 long years and are brainwashed at every turn to believe that "Truth is relative", "people are animals", " we, the state are here to help you", "Christianity cannot be taught but Eastern religions are just fine" and on and on. Then America is so shocked when these "animals" turn and kill "its all relative", won't get jobs "The state will take care of me" and hate mom and Dad because they "control them". Where is the surprise to a thinking person?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 8:57 AM

Richard J. Abbate of CT in Cheshire, CT said:

Let us allow, for just a moment, that there may be a very few people in this world who "are truly good at heart."

But then the vast majority of people are not. They are under the influence, or ruled by emotions, desires, lusts, and/or chemicals (natural or self administered). Some significant portion of humanity is 'wired wrong', mentally damaged, or has been conditioned to violence, crime or sadism.

Those very few people who "are truly good at heart" are out-numbered millions to one.
And as humans even they carry within themselves the very natural instincts that can lead to outrageous behavior.

We are imperfect being, in an imperfect world, governed by a God who can at times seem capricious and intemperate.
A reading of the Old Testament clearly demonstrates that even our loving and merciful God can display wrath, and anger.
He can behave in excessively punitive ways.
Made in His image and likeness, can we be expected to be any better?

To the extent that we as individuals are capable of acting in accordance with the instruction to "Do unto others as you would be done unto", and "To love our neighbors as we love ourselves." our better natures appear.

It is most accurate to say about us, that as beings we can occasionally rise to the level of 'Truly Good at Heart", but it is a purely transitory state which we slip in and out of as dictated by our thoughts, experiences and emotions.
More often than not, in regards to those around us, we would be better advised to 'check six' at all times.
It might also be worthwhile for us to 'check six' even when looking at ourselves in the mirror.

Indeed, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" The Shadow may know, but we rarely do! RJA

Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 4:42 PM

Honest Abe in North Carolina said:

The bogus belief in mankind's inherent goodness is destroying us. Welfare was supposed to free humanity from the evils created by poverty and electing a black president was supposed to end bigotry and leave us all with a love of our fellow man no matter the skin color. What happened? The welfare state continues to grow and society is worse than before help arrived. The first black president has turned the country into a divided America, those who believe he can do no wrong and those who think he can do no good. The evil in mankind's heart is overcome by faith in God, not by a vote or a welfare check. Until America repents there will be no real goodness in anyone's heart.

Friday, January 4, 2013 at 10:29 PM