It’s become common, in discussing terrorism (and most recently the supposed righteousness of drone attacks) to talk flatly of the “good guys” versus the “bad guys.” Even a small dose of theology questions the appropriateness of so flippantly assigning all sin and evil to a single “side.” Thinking on this recently reminded me of a G. K. Chesterton short story about his fictional detective, Father Brown.
It’s called “The Secret of Father Brown,” and in the story Father Brown explains his method for sniffing out criminals. He explains to a dinner party that his crime solving method is a “religious exercise.” Believing in the Christian doctrine of original sin, Father Brown at a crime scene tries to think and imagine himself into the skin of the criminal and the criminal’s motivations and bent. The cleric-detective explains,
I don’t try to get outside the man [that is, the criminal]. I try to get inside the murderer. . . . Indeed, it’s much more than that, don’t you see. I am inside a man. I am always inside a man, moving his arms and legs; but I wait till I know I am inside a murderer, thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions; till I have bent myself into the posture of his hunched and peering hatred; till I see the world with his bloodshot and squinting eyes, looking between the blinkers of his half-witted concentration; looking up the short and sharp perspective of a straight road to a pool of blood. Till I really am a murderer.
One of the dinner party companions is aghast and sniffs, “And you call this a religious exercise?” Father Brown continues:
No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realized exactly how much right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about “criminals,” as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away; till he’s got rid of all the dirty self-deception of talking about low types and deficient skulls; till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees; till his only hope is somehow or other to have captured one criminal, and kept him safe and sane under his own hat.