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The eyes have it

Some thoughts on the nature of evil & how to recognize it

August 1st, 2012


Evil is easy, and has infinite forms.
— Blaise Pascal

I have been ruminating on Evil. The first thing I realized is that I wasn’t even sure what it meant. It wouldn’t be in the religious sense, because those definitions are narrow and self-serving: masturbation and extra-marital sex are evil, but slaughtering heretics, i.e., anyone whose idea of god is different from yours, isn’t?

I asked a friend who teaches philosophy, and she told me that philosophers don’t like to deal with fuzzy concepts like “evil,” for which no objective definition can be found. So I went to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the shining beacons of my faith. The first definition: Bad in a positive sense. Delicious, and unimprovable, although I’m not sure what it means.

I was disappointed to find that Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary does not define the word.

I also knew that the similarity between evil and devil is simply a coincidence of spelling. There is no etymological connection. The devil will be absent from this discussion. I think.

Literature emanating from the Holocaust is often angry and despairing, based on the idea that no god could exist in a world where babies are burned alive on an industrial scale. So any and all deities will also not enter into this.

The stunning 1975 Italian film Seven Beauties examines evil as a survival mechanism. The vilest and most horrifying events — but not by much — occur in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. The main character behaves badly before he winds up there.

Is evil real? Can it be merely the absence of good? Or is it as Buddha said: “There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it”? Talk about self-serving.

One may ask what the hell brought this rumination on? It was looking into the eyes of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer. Do we have to say “alleged,” when the shitbag has bragged about slaughtering unarmed children?

It would be comforting to assume that he is psychotic. Indeed, he displays the characteristics of a psychopath, primarily lack of both affect and compassion. Here’s a definition I have cadged from Wikipedia; it seems to gibe with what I know about the condition: “…a personality disorder characterized by a pervasive pattern of disregard for the rights of others and the rules of society. Psychopaths have a lack of empathy and remorse, and have very shallow emotions. They are generally regarded as callous, selfish, dishonest, arrogant, aggressive, impulsive, irresponsible, and hedonistic.”

This certainly describes other major psychopaths from my lifetime, like Charlie Manson and Dick Cheney. (Can you believe that some deserving person may have died so that the seventy-one-year-old Cheney could get a transplanted heart? Evil? You bet.)

The thing is, when you look in the eyes of these men you can see that they are insane. Adolph Hitler was probably crazy, power mad, and sick with hatred, but Joseph Mengele [pictured] was evil. He didn’t do the experiments on people for power. Maybe not even for personal gain. He just liked to inflict pain and suffering. Think: a kid with a magnifying glass burning ants, but on an appalling scale.

I know I seem to be contradicting myself here, but this is a complicated topic, and I’m still not sure how I feel about evil. What distinguishes Breivik from Manson, or any other mass killer? A sense of mission? Joan of Arc had that. She heard the word of the lord and engaged in a bloody war to save France. Is Breivik a saint? He claims he was saving Norway from itself, killing traitors and sell-outs who were delivering his country to Islam.

Over the next few months, we will learn much about Breivik. We may hear that he was abused as a child, physically, mentally, and sexually. The idea is that many psychopaths are created by abuse, and they develop their persona as a kind of defense. The abuse gets passed down, in effect. Psychopaths are often cruel to animals and other children as they grow up.

Breivik has already received a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. No surprise there. It is an off-the-shelf convenience in a case like his. In fact, the whole thing so far is like a manuscript discovered in Stieg Larsson’s attic. I am not demeaning the deaths of seventy-seven people. That is far too disturbing and tragic to make light of. Perhaps I have been too immersed in crime fiction for too long, but this reads like a clichéd psycho-killer novel.

The Trayvon Martin case makes a good contrast. The alleged (!) killer strikes me as a self-deluded bigot with inferiority issues and a gun. This is a workable description of a large subset of the Republican base, but that is another column. When George Zimmerman says he is sorry for what he did, I believe him. If he could take back what happened that night, he would probably trade years of his own life. Look into his eyes.
He is not crazy, just stupid and impulsive. He is not evil. He will suffer for this crime, one way or another, for the rest of his life.

Breivik has already built himself a castle in the air, and moved in. He would do it again, because he has told us that. I see Mengele staring out of his eyes. I’ll bet that if we had a photograph of Torquemada, we would see Breivik’s eyes, Mengele’s.

On a side note, perpetrators of the worst crimes are often dull, gray men. The classic example was Adolf Eichmann, a faceless bureaucrat who abetted the mass murders in the concentration camps by creating an efficient system of rail transport. A great organizer, but also an SS Lt. Colonel with the requisite moral sense, i.e., none. If you look at his pictures, he could be a vice-principal in any high school, a local Rotarian and bank president. He is smiling a benign smile in his official SS photo. It is for him that Hannah Arendt coined the phrase, “the banality of evil.”

But I think that is a mistake. Evil is not banal, even if those who evince it may be. Jeffrey Dahmer looked like the guy next door, because he was. Ditto John Wayne Gacy. But there is a color picture of Gacy in his rent-a-clown drag with Mengele eyes.

This phenomenon is disturbing because these guys are too much like us. Ted Bundy was a young and personable young man with good looks and Mengele eyes. We want monsters like these to foam at the mouth, be Mr. Hyde and not Dr. Jekyll. What we get is ultra-normal in almost every way, if you don’t look them in the eye. And I fear that people like this can camouflage that look when they need to.

In contrast, I stared into the jpeg eyes of Aileen Wouronos, a rare female serial killer. What I saw was anger, and resentment, and perhaps madness, but not that hard glare of evil. Not the look that says, “I am so happy to be what I am.”

Also rare is the female mass murderer. One was Brenda Ann Spencer, who, at sixteen years of age, walked into an elementary school and shot randomly, killing two and wounding nine. When asked why, she famously replied, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” Later on, she claimed she had been beaten and sexually assaulted by her father prior to the murders. That may be true, but her mug shot is pure Mengele.

And here is one of the problems with this whole idea. At what point does insanity trump evil? At what point are actions no longer the responsibility of the perpetrator? Can someone be both evil and insane? Sure. Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin — any or all of these could qualify. The Manson girls? I don’t know.

Everyone creates his own hierarchy of bad behavior, his own definition of evil. That is, everyone who has original thoughts and is not tainted by the received tenets of his faith. The 9/11 murderers were not evil by some standards, because they were doing the will of Allah. The Crusaders were not evil, because ditto, or the Christian equivalent.

Pedophiles and identity thieves and nurses who “help their older patients along to a quiet death” will all be set into the matrix based on our own values. What about soldiers who indiscriminately kill civilians, or piss on the corpses of dead enemies, or collect ears from their kills? Are they evil?

Here is where it really gets murky. I believe that war is such a horrifying and negative experience that it will either create behavior that would be unknown in a peacetime situation or release actions that might have stayed below the surface without the hostilities. Remember My Lai, a massacre of up to 500 unarmed villagers perpetrated and covered up by U.S. troops in Vietnam? The main scapegoat, Lt. William Calley, certainly did what he was accused of, and yet I have always been reluctant to condemn him. I have no idea what I would have done in his place. More Zimmerman than Breivik, if you ask me.

We, the victorious allies in World War II, decided that soldiers had the right, the duty, to refuse an order involving war crimes. We hanged and jailed Nazis and their ilk for My Lai-like actions. We charged twenty-six soldiers from Calley’s Charlie Company platoon, but the charges were dropped. Only Calley was convicted. What if they had been wearing SS uniforms a generation earlier? Would they have gotten off?

Rwanda? The Khmer Rouge? Bosnia? The Lord’s Resistance Army? Were, are, they evil? Damn right, and North Korea isn’t much better. Given the world’s ostensible loathing for behavior like this, remarkably little was done to help.

Edmund Burke is alleged to have written, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

But it is still complicated here. Breivik says he is a good man who fought against evil. I say, look into his eyes. If you see Manson, he’s nuts. If you see Mengele, he’s full of shit. He is evil. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Goldberg | Link to this Entry


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