When chilling crimes happen, our reactions are chilling too. There are terrorist attacks, mass murders, and crimes against humanity. There are gruesome crimes against individual men, women and children. Crimes are part of our own societies and cultures. The way we react to crimes tell us who we are.

Just 10 days ago, bombs were detonated at the Boston Marathon sports event in USA, killing three people and injuring dozens; some still in critical condition in hospital. One of the alleged perpetrators was killed by the police and the other seriously injured. An uncle of the two brothers was quick to disown his nephews although he had not seen them for many years. He said they were losers, but one was actually a medical student.

The mother defended them, as a mother and any other close relative should do, and she claimed they had been set up.

The media was quick to tell us that the brothers were immigrants from south-eastern Europe and that they were Muslims, and there were speculations about their travels abroad and possible contact with international terrorist networks. Yet, the brothers grew up and went to school in America, so then they are Americans, mostly at least, whether they were well-integrated or not, and there are millions of American Muslims.

The way the American authorities reacted to the terrible crimes at the Boston Marathon was chilling; indeed, based on the TV pictures and reports we received. The reaction was scary and extreme and disaster-like; people were advised to stay indoors; all modern arms and technology were used to track down whoever it was who was behind the terrible crimes. The true meaning of the word ‘manhunt’ came out.

Quite soon, the two accused brothers were identified, and no mercy was shown; one was killed and the other seriously injured. He seems to survive, but he will either be imprisoned for life or given the death penalty. Yesterday, it was reported that the prosecutors consider the bombs used to be ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

How can America and its most ‘sophisticated and liberal’ city change colour so fast? Or, maybe it wasn’t change of colour? Maybe this is the result of the hype that was created after 9/11 and has been kept since? The bomb crime in Boston was chilling, but the reaction is no less chilling.

I must hasten to add that America is also a great country, Massachusetts is a great state, and Boston is a great city, inter alia, with some of the best universities in the world and many admirable democratic traditions. And I would like to underline that President Barack Obama’s speeches and statements after the recent events were quite balanced.

Let us compare the tragedy in America with terrorist bomb explosions in Pakistan. Are they not as terrible as the Boston Marathon tragedy? Are the innocent people here, also when drone attacks hit them, not as valuable as those in the world’s superpower?

Of course, they are, but not in the eyes of the strong and powerful in the world we live in. Sadly, justice is on the terms of the winners. As civilised people, we should speak up against the short and long term consequences of such injustice.

In 2011, Norway experienced a terrible crime committed by a misguided ethnic Norwegian, Anders Behring Breivik. The crime was in magnitude even worse than the one in Boston recently. However, the Norwegian authorities reacted in a more appropriate way than the Americans, underlining that the way to get over and beyond the tragedy would be to become more inclusive, not to use power and punishment in an overkill manner.

Sadly, also in Norway, the perpetrator’s father was quick to disown his son, unwittingly showing his own stunted feelings, leading one to wonder if the perpetrator had, probably, grown up in a dysfunctional and broken family situation.

Criminologists, with psychologists and other social scientists, study the individual characteristics of the criminals and the social conditions they have grown up and lived in, and they study how justice should be applied, to be fair to the perpetrators, the victims and the society at large. They also study forms of fair and humane punishment and rehabilitation, and many other related issues.

It is important that we consider criminality in a society in a broad context and that we try to understand the many aspects that lead to crimes, and that our actions lead to more or less violence and crime. I assume that we all want less crime, yet, we often accept and promote systems that may actually lead to more violence, crime, exclusion and suffering of the weak and misguided.

In India, gruesome rape and murder cases against women and girls have been brought to international attention recently. Although the perpetrators must be brought to book, we should also discuss why such criminal acts happen. Sadly, we will realise that some of the sexual violence against women is directly and indirectly condoned and accepted by the society.

We should focus more on debating crime in society in a way that also takes the perpetrators’ backgrounds and views into account. Perpetrators are victims, too, including those who are behind terrorist attacks. And they are products of the society and time they live in. Perpetrators belong to the larger culture we all are part of. And often, they belong to subcultures that may have gone astray. We should watch out for loners and the lack of inclusiveness of any person or groups in a community.

Difficult as it is, we should admit that criminals in a society belong to that very society. They are sometimes individual ‘bad apples’, as we say, but even in such cases, the society cannot just disown them wholesale.

If we want to see less criminality in any society, we must pose soul-searching questions to the leaders and members of the society, and also look into our own hearts. We must evaluate the institutions and organisations in the society. We must evaluate the values and attitudes of all, and put better preventive measures in place. The perpetrators are also victims, and indeed, their families and friends. It is too easy just to make them into monsters entirely different from the rest of us.

    The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.