David Brooks, Natural-Born Killer

March 21, 2012   ·   5 Comments

Source: NYTX

David Brooks

By Marie Burns:

I should be writing about Ross Douthat’s enthusiasm for a new and improved way to kill off poor old Americans, but I am haunted today not by Douthat’s inner demons and homicidal tendencies, but by David Brooks’. In his New York Times column yesterday, Our Mister Brooks – the purported Mr. Milquetoast of his generation – all but reveals that he is more Jekyll and Hyde than Milquetoast. After detailing the homicidal fantasies of college students, Brooks confesses that “we’re natural-born killers.” I am assuming the “we” in that declarative sentence is neither the editorial nor the royal “we,” but the literal you-and-I “we,” or to further parse – “I, David Brooks, am a natural-born killer.” Brooks adds, “… even people who contain reservoirs of compassion and neighborliness also possess a latent potential to commit murder.” (Brooks’ capacity for murder was not what I had in mind when, based on the report of a friend of mine, I described Brooks as “a good neighbor.” Sorry, can’t find the link.)

Still, delving into Brooks’ heart of darkness may not be the most disturbing part of his column. For one thing, it is safe to assume that Our Mister Brooks has too much to lose to ever allow his inner berserk to escape and send him rampaging through his tree-lined neighborhood with hand-grenades and an automatic rifle. Besides, Brooks possesses a range of sublimatory tools to which he can transfer his god-given aggressive impulses: his twice-weekly column, his weekly television and personal appearances, his books, his Krugman voodoo doll.

No, what is really rattling about Brooks’ column is the list of rationales he finds to explain mass murder, each of them creepier than the next. As is rather typical of Brooks, he bases his entire column on a false assumption. This assumption is that good people do bad things; the title of his essay is “When the Good Do Bad.” Here’s the set-up: “Friends of Robert Bales, who is accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians…, describe him as caring, gregarious and self-confident before he – in the vague metaphor of common usage – apparently ‘snapped.’”

But in the Times story on which Brooks bases his premise, the friends who described “our Bobby” were neighbors who knew him two decades ago. The story goes on to recount a number of problems Bales has had over the years, problems that to any layperson suggest – if they don’t prove – that Bales was impulsive, had “anger management” issues, had serious, long-term, systemic financial difficulties, had medical problems – one of which was brain damage – and had other personal problems, including likely beefs with the military. A story in yesterday’s Washington Post indicates that more than a decade ago Bales was accused of perpetrating a large financial fraud against an elderly client whose finances Bales was supposed to be managing. An arbitrator ordered Bales and his firm to repay the client $1.4 million dollars; the victim says he has not received a penny of the judgment. Obviously, some of the information that suggests Bales was on a long, downward spiral may be inaccurate, but the early reporting is not that Bales “apparently ‘snapped,’ as Brooks asserts. I would not judge Bales as either a “good person” or a “bad person,” but I will suggest that Bales’ alleged actions in Afghanistan are not a completely inexplicable or uncharacteristic anomaly.

Now to Brooks’ “analysis” of his apparently false assumption. Brooks is disdainful of what he describes as the prevalent worldview that “people are naturally good, because nature is good…. This worldview gives us an easy conscience, because we don’t have to contemplate the evil in ourselves.” I suppose there are some simpletons – perhaps of the religious fundamentalist persuasion – who place a value judgment on “nature,” but I don’t know any of those simpletons. By definition, nature is; it is not “good” or “evil.” Today may prove to be a beautiful day in your neck of the woods. Or a tornado may rip the roof off your house. Nature may do you a good or bad turn, but it cannot be “evil”; “Mother Nature” is an anthropomorphic myth, not a goddess intent on ruining your day, the comically vindictive character in the “Chiffon” margarine commercials notwithstanding.

Brooks reports on the findings of Prof. David Buss, who asked his students if they had ever thought about killing anyone. Yes, they had. Buss found that “91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women had detailed, vivid homicidal fantasies.” Based on who-knows-what, Buss argues that these murderous dreams “occur because we are descended from creatures who killed to thrive and survive. We’re natural-born killers and the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so.”

If you guessed Brooks was going to answer that “real question” with one of his pat sociological truisms, you would be right. Here’s his argument. He probably copied the predicate from an earlier column on why teenaged girls have sex or one on why young men don’t go to college. “People who murder often live in situations that weaken sympathy and restraint.” I don’t know exactly what that means, but I think it might be something about good, American, middle-class values being the last defense against mass mayhem.

To put a little perspective on whatever it was he just wrote, Brooks turns, naturally, to one of history’s crazier figures, John Calvin, and to the doctrine of original sin. Calvinists (not to mention the entire body of Roman Catholic theology from Augustine of Hippo forward) believe people are born defective. (This, as we know, is Eve’s fault.) Brooks writes, “Each person you sit next to on the bus is capable of extraordinary horrors and extraordinary heroism. According to this older worldview, Robert Bales, like all of us, is a mixture of virtue and depravity.” This is essentially where Brooks ends his discourse, leaving us with his tacit endorsement of the “older worldview.”

Here’s a somewhat narrower view I would suggest: when a society endorses killing as a standard of heroism, some individuals will veer from state-sanctioned killing to outright murder. We live in a nation where the majority of our public monuments are to men associated with war. Our most revered presidents – with the exception of Reagan – are associated with major wars: the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II. For decades, military service was considered a prerequisite to public office. The most oft-cited reason that women were unqualified for high public office: few women had military experience and virtually none had combat experience.

The way we associate killing and heroism is not limited to military operations. Thanks to the police in Sanford, Florida, we don’t know many of the facts surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin, but we know this much: an unauthorized neighborhood watch volunteer vigilante went out and about his community carrying a gun to “protect” himself and his neighbors from potential criminals. In the course of his self-appointed rounds, evidence is mounting that he stalked and murdered an innocent teenaged child in cold blood. ABC News now reports additional evidence that the killing was racially motivated: the victim was black, and the killer, who is white, apparently can be heard on a 911 tape referring to black people as “fucking coons” minutes before he shot the victim dead. Law enforcement officials have not arrested the killer, they did not even test him for drug or alcohol levels. Florida state law actually encourages this kind of killing: not only are Florida carry laws outrageously permissive, a state “Stand Your Ground” law, pushed by the National Rifle Association, “gives people who think they are being threatened the right to use force” and absolves them of the responsibility to retreat when they feel threatened. So besides putting a gun in the perpetrator’s hand, the State of Florida told him to Stand His Ground. Standing your ground, after all would be the heroic, manly thing to do.

Institutionally-sanctioned violence is not exclusively an American problem, but as other advanced nations become more pacifistic and we become less so, we are increasingly becoming a paradigmatically bellicose, murderous nation. We are a country where certain politicians and their minions think it is “evil” to “murder” a zygote – a mass of a few cells – but it is “heroic” to kill actual people in the name of nation-building, and it is the right of almost all Americans to carry deadly weapons into supposedly safe and peaceful public places. So I guess it is fair to say that all Americans “live in situations that weaken sympathy and restraint.” Sympathy and restraint are not characteristics often associated with waging war or packing heat.

David Brooks wrote his column with the aim of helping us understand why “even a formerly good man is capable of monstrous acts.” But in his effort, he never broaches the circumstances that put the means for committing monstrous acts within easy reach of most of our citizens – including those like Bales who probably should not have been in Afghanistan at all – then glorifies some of the monstrous acts as sources of national pride and moments of individual courage. It is true that monstrous acts can occur in the best of circumstances, but we have become a nation that has made ticking time bombs of millions of its citizens. It is hardly surprising that these time bombs explode with some regularity.

Perhaps I should have stuck with Ross Douthat. Douthat applauds the modifications that Paul Ryan has made to his plan to “end Medicare as we know it.” The “new” Ryan plan, just like the old Ryan plan, will kill older Americans just as randomly as Bales allegedly chose his victims. And because the Ryan plan will most hurt segments of the population who tend to vote Democratic, it will work in just as targeted a way as the killing in Florida. Plus, there’s this: Paul Ryan will never be prosecuted for his monstrous acts.

Marie Burns blogs at 


Readers Comments (5)

  1. PD Pepe says:

    “Paul Ryan will never be prosecuted for HIS monstrous acts,” and neither will the former thugs in charge of our country when they lied and took us into Iraq which killed thousands. I’m glad you connected the obsession with all things fetal to all things heroic in the name of nation building grand slam killings. Boot camp means to turn soldiers into killers––a complete reversal of learned responses since we teach otherwise from little on.

    I recall the baptism of my first child whose Catholic grandmother on husband’s side remarked after the ceremony that “now he’s pure, free of sin, and God can receive him;” I was horrified that she literally believed in original sin. But this idea of man’s inner demonic leanings makes for centuries of speculation. I think, however, in this 21st century we have pretty well established that evil is not something that lurks in some dark corner in all homo sapiens, but shows itself because of circumstances that are as varied as they are complicated.

  2. alphonsegaston says:

    Just having bought a recent translation of the poems of Hungry Coyote and other major ancient Mexican and Peruvian poets, I have been cursorily reading up on the great Aztec cities of the 15th century and their destruction by the Spanish. Then I read your dismissive view of the doctrine of original sin.

    While it seems reasonable to blame homicidal behavior on institutions, whether our American war machine or the greed of Spanish monarchs or the massive organized human sacrifices of the Aztec society–these are human institutions created by human beings. Original sin does not relate just to sex or murder–it fits our modern corporate morality just as well, or our individual frailties. Just a matter of proportion.
    Consciousness of “sin” does not need to be seen in a landscape of heaven and hell. In fact, I consider it common sense.

    In other words, the “circumstances” you cite in your last sentence are at least as often caused by human folly as by Mother Nature. The young man is schizophrenic–Mother Nature in action; but the fact that there is no help for him is sheer human evil.

  3. wgowen says:

    Surprised he didn’t quote Steven Weinberg:

    With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.

  4. marieburns says:

    Thanks for all the comments.

    @alphonegaston. It’s true I think the doctrine of original sin is superstitious. A neonate thinks only of himself — he doesn’t ever think, “Gee, I think I’ll go hungry for a bit or put up with this poopy diaper so Mom can sleep in a little longer.” But that infantile selfishnish — in an infant! – is neither sinful nor evil. It’s an expression of the limitations of the infant’s worldview. I’ll leave it to behaviorists to explain how we become socialized and other-directed, but I just don’t attribute evil to children (and neither does U.S. law). In my estimation, a person has to be all growed-up & know the difference between right & wrong, then knowingly choose to do something really wrong, harmful to others and/or self-serving to qualify as “evil” or “committing an evil act.”

    Is it all nurture? Certainly not. We’re endowed with certain natural responses to stimuli — fear, anger, etc. Studies of identical twins reared apart have found that the twins have remarkably similar personalities despite differences in their environments.

    As to the broader issue you raise — suggesting that the Spanish & Aztec monarchs were evil — I’m not so sure. They are evil by our modern standards, but not by the prevailing ethos of their times & places. The Aztecs, after all, thought if they didn’t perform all those human sacrifices, the sun would quit. The sacrifices were “necessary.” I think you could argue that a Wall Street trader selling junk to unsuspecting investors was more “evil” than an Aztec ruler ordering a sacripalooza. The former knows he’s hurting someone else for his own benefit; the latter thought he was pleasing the almighty.


  5. alphonsegaston says:

    Well, as wgowen says, the evil done by the Aztecs was because of their religion. And the Spaniards quite replicate our American nation building. Seeking for power, for riches–here the Spanish resemble our Wall Street thugs. I remember reading a history of the Spanish Conquest which said that there was great similarity between the conquerors and the conquered. Brutal, power-seeking leadership using religion to hold on to power. This applies to both the Aztecs quite as well as the Europeans. One of the Mexica kings, for example, brought in leaders of towns he was seeking to dominate and let them watch as he sacrificed some of their people.

    Belief in original sin does not have to be an “easist room in hell” faith, but rather an acknowledgement that, in general, people cannot be expected to consider moral issues even when they are not suffering. This why the news media always pushes the “why” button–why did this person do something bad?? You’d think they had never considered the question before.



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