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Why is there evil, and what can scientific research tell us about the origins and persistence of evil behavior? Considering evil from the unusual perspective of the perpetrator, Baumeister asks, How do ordinary people find themselves beating their wives? Murdering rival gang members? Torturing political prisoners? Betraying their colleagues to the secret police? Why do cycles of revenge so often escalate?
Baumeister casts new light on these issues as he examines the gap between ...
Why is there evil, and what can scientific research tell us about the origins and persistence of evil behavior? Considering evil from the unusual perspective of the perpetrator, Baumeister asks, How do ordinary people find themselves beating their wives? Murdering rival gang members? Torturing political prisoners? Betraying their colleagues to the secret police? Why do cycles of revenge so often escalate?
Baumeister casts new light on these issues as he examines the gap between the victim's viewpoint and that of the perpetrator, and also the roots of evil behavior, from egotism and revenge to idealism and sadism. A fascinating study of one of humankind's oldest problems, Evil has profound implications for the way we conduct our lives and govern our society.
The Question of Evil, and the Answers
Why is there evil? The question has bedeviled humanity for centuries. If there were a single, simple answer, we probably would have had it long ago. So we need not only to look for an answer but also to understand why the question has persisted despite the efforts of many wise men and women to answer it.
Evil usually enters the world unrecognized by the people who open the door and let it in. Most people who perpetrate evil do not see what they are doing as evil. Evil exists primarily in the eye of the beholder, especially in the eye of the victim. If there were no victims, there would be no evil. True, there are victimless crimes (for example, many traffic violations), and presumably victimless sins, but they exist as marginal categories of something that is defined mainly by the doing of harm. Try to imagine a society in which nobody ever did anything that had any sort of bad effect on anyone else. What would the police have to do? Would there even be police?
If victimization is the essence of evil, then the question of evil is a victim's question. Perpetrators, after all, do not need to search for explanations of what they have done. And bystanders are merely curious or sympathetic. It is the victims who are driven to ask, why did this happen? Why did those soldiers shoot my family? Why did that woman plant a bomb on that bus? Why did those boys beat me up? Why did my grandfather force me to have sex with him? As a general pattern, suffering stimulates a quest for meaningful explanation. The ideathat suffering is random, inevitable, and meaningless has never been satisfactory to most people, and victims desire specific explanations. Evil is a partial explanation, and many victims can be satisfied (at least for a while) by concluding that their attackers were evil. But in the long run, evil needs to be explained, too.
Evil challenges some of our most basic and important assumptions about the world, and so the question of why there is evil goes to the heart of the human being's place in the universe. The great thinker St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that the existence of evil in the world is the single greatest obstacle to Christian faith and doctrine. In other words, nothing undermines the Christian belief in God more than the existence of evil. If God is all-good and all-powerful, how can God allow evil to happen?
More recently, studies by social scientists have emphasized that most people in modern Western society go through life with strong positive beliefs that the world is basically a nice place in which to live, that life is mostly fair, and that they are good people who deserve to have good things happen to them. Moreover, these beliefs are a valuable aid to happy, healthy functioning. But suffering and victimization undermine these beliefs and make it hard to go on living happily or effectively in society. Indeed, the direct and practical effects of some trauma or crime are often relatively minor, whereas the psychological effects go on indefinitely. The body may recover from rape or robbery rather quickly, but the psychological scars can last for many years. A characteristic of these scars is that the victims lose faith in their basic beliefs about the world as fair and benevolent or even in themselves as good people. Thus, evil strikes at people's fundamental beliefs.
Questions beginning with "Why ..." can be answered in several ways. One way is to describe a reasoned or intentional purpose that evil actions serve, on the assumption that the actions are taken to serve this purpose. Another is to explain them in moral terms. Yet another is to explain their causes. Many written works have dealt with the question of why evil exists in theological terms; these works tend to emphasize the possible function of evil in the cosmos and the divine reason for permitting it to exist.
This book will try to give a causal answer. The mode of explanation will not be theological or moral but scientific—more precisely, I will use the approach of social science. I will not try to defend or justify the existence of evil but merely to explain how it happens to come into the world. How evil enters the world is a question with three parts. First, how do the particular events come to happen? Second, what leads people to perceive events as evil? Third, because it will soon become apparent that people's perceptions of evil often differ greatly from the reality, what accounts for the wide gap between the perceptions and the reality of evil?
A Brush with Evil
There wasn't much time. She was hungry, but her flight would be boarding soon. Sometimes flights just worked out so that you got nothing to eat all day, and she really wanted something. As luck would have it, there was a small place open near her gate. She stood in line and bought a bag of chips and a diet cola.
But all the tables in the small airport cafeteria were full. There was not a single free table. She'd have to share with somebody who already had one.
She spotted a likely prospect: a reasonably well dressed man sitting by himself at a small table, reading a paper. Certainly he would not mind if she sat at one of the empty seats at his table and quietly ate her snack.
She sat down. They briefly made eye contact; he seemed to nod slightly and then went back to his paper. She was nervous for no apparent reason. She busied herself with her snack. She set down her diet cola, unwrapped the straw, inserted it in the slot, and had her first sip. Then another. Then she had a chip.
When her mouth crunched on the first chip, the man suddenly looked up from his newspaper. He looked angry, intent, alert, vaguely dangerous. He fixed his eyes on hers, violent, like a predator seeing prey. And then, amazingly, he slowly reached out his hand into her bag of chips, extracted one, brought it to his mouth, and ate it!
Her heart began to beat rapidly. A crazy impulse told her to flee, abandon her food to this man and save herself. She took another drink and then made herself take another chip from her bag and eat it. He glared at her, motionless. It was a hostile, evil glare. What had at first struck her as a calm, middle-aged gentleman now appeared as a dangerous individual, capable of unknown things. As she finished chewing her chip, he reached out and took another himself. Now she knew he was not just helping himself one time, as if to say she owed him a chip for sitting at his table. Now he was totally outside the bounds of normal etiquette between strangers. What sort of person was this?
They finished the bag, not speaking a single word but intently taking turns drawing chips. He looked at her the whole time; she didn't know whether to meet his gaze or to look away, so she alternated. She took big gulps of her drink. Soon it was nearly gone and the bag was nearly empty, too. She had had enough. She stood up, nodded, looked away from him, picked up her bags, and walked quickly out of the place. She got to her gate a few minutes early and sat in the waiting area, heart pounding, still unable to grasp what had just happened, what manner of creature she had just encountered. What sort of people just help themselves to a stranger's food in a restaurant?
She learned the answer sooner than she expected. They called passengers to board the plane, and she got right in line. When she came to the front of the line, she reached into her bag for her ticket. It was there, and next to it was her bag of chips. Somehow, when she paid for the snack, she had put her chips into her flight bag, and at the table she and the mysterious stranger had shared his chips, not hers. She herself was the sort of person who just helped herself to a stranger's food in a restaurant.
This minor story illustrates that evil is in the eye of the beholder. For a while, the woman saw the face of the man sitting across from her as evil. In retrospect, there was no reason to think there was anything evil about him. When she believed herself to be the victim, she saw him as evil. In this case it was a mistake, an illusion. Indeed, the man probably saw her as evil, at least mildly so. He was eating and reading, and a stranger sat down uninvited at his table and helped herself to his food. In any case, though, if there was evil present at that table, it was not glimpsed by the perpetrators. It was only recognized by the victims. This discrepancy is very common, even with genuine and serious evil.
The woman herself was the one who acted outrageously, yet she was horrified that anyone would do such a thing as take someone else's food in an airport. The challenge of this book is to understand how perpetrators come to do things that others see as evil. In this case, it was an honest mistake and an accident, but most of the world's evil cannot be explained away so easily.
Had you asked the woman if she would ever take a stranger's food in an airport restaurant, she probably would have said no. The same response is likely to be elicited by almost any hypothetical question about evil. Would you obey orders to kill innocent civilians? Would you help torture someone? Would you stand by passively while the secret police hauled your neighbors off to concentration camps? Most people say no. But when such events actually happen, the reality is quite different.
Understanding evil begins with the realization that we ourselves are capable of doing many of these things. Ordinary, normal people have done a great many evil things, and sometimes the majority of those present have acquiesced. To understand evil, we must set aside the comfortable belief that we would never do anything wrong. Instead, we must begin to ask ourselves, what would it take for me to do such things? Assume that it would be possible.
The airport story hints at two core aspects of evil. The first is the infliction of harm by one person on another. In this case, of course, the harm was quite trivial—the deprivation of a few potato chips. In most cases worthy of being called evil, the victim has far more at stake. The second aspect is chaos—the violation of the friendly, orderly, comprehensible world. The woman was not upset over the loss of a few potato chips. She was upset because what was happening seemed utterly outside her conception of how decent people interact with one another. She felt that she had encountered a creature alien to her world.
Next, let us tackle the question of what is to be called evil.
What Is Evil?
At one point my wife and I discussed the possibility of adopting a child. Ever since my experience of living in a foreign country with a local family, I have been enthusiastic about diversity in families. My wife and I discovered that we both favored adopting a black child. We are both white, highly educated, and financially comfortable, and we thought we could give a child a very good head start in life. We thought that bringing up a privileged, well-educated black child might be of more value to society than rearing a privileged, well-educated white one.
Fortunately, our discussions of adoption never moved beyond vague speculation. I say "fortunately" because to many people it would have been supremely evil for us to adopt a black child. Indeed, the National Association of Black Social Workers declared that the adoption of black babies by white parents is a form of genocide. My wife and I would have been led by our seemingly innocent idealism into such an atrocity. We thought of it as lavishing love and a few advantages on a child who might turn out to help society and heal racial differences. Some people, though, would regard us as no different from the folks who stand out in the blood-stained and foul-smelling fields, holding machine guns or machetes, methodically killing long lines of people simply because of the ethnic group to which they belong.
I am not saying that I agree with the opinion that interracial adoption is a form of genocide; in fact, if national policy were up to me, I would make it the norm (in all combinations) rather than the exception. But again, evil is in the eye of the beholder. I might think of what I was doing as acceptable and even positively good, but in this I would be no different from many other agents of genocide who think they are making the world a better place. Evil is but rarely found in the perpetrator's own self-image. It is far more commonly found in the judgments of others.
The reliance on judgments by others is essential. Indeed, if we limited our examination of evil to acts that perpetrators themselves acknowledge as evil, there would be hardly any such acts to examine. For example, Frederick Treesh, a spree killer, was captured after a shoot-out with police in August 1994. During the previous two weeks, he had carried out several bank and store robberies and armed carjackings. He did not think he had done anything so bad: "Other than the two we killed, the two we wounded, the woman we pistol-whipped and the light bulbs we stuck in people's mouths, we didn't really hurt anybody." Or consider the act of raping an 11-year-old girl, which most people would regard as evil. Such a rape was committed recently by a 14-year-old boy, whose lawyer saw no evil: "They were two kids with nothing better to do. They don't have cable TV, what do you do?"
There is wide variation in the use and definition of the word evil. Even more precise terms such as genocide have very different meanings. For the National Association of Black Social Workers, genocide meant white parents adopting black children. The Reverend Al Page used the term to condemn the University of Virginia's plan to develop a residential neighborhood. By such criteria, genocides are everywhere. In contrast, Alain Destexhe, the secretary-general of the international service organization Doctors Without Borders, wrote in 1994 that only three events in the twentieth century counted as true genocides according to the official United Nations definition: the Ottoman Turks' massacre of the Armenians in 1915-1917, the Nazi Germans' campaign against Jews during the Second World War, and the efforts by Hutu extremists to exterminate the Tutsi in Rwanda during the 1990s. Destexhe specifically criticized "the growing use of the term `genocide' without proper regard for its true meaning."
If it is that hard to agree on what genocide is, it is even harder to find a definition of evil that will satisfy everyone. Many people will see the term evil as too grandiose or as referring to mystical, supernatural, or otherwise esoteric phenomena. The term has an air of anachronism, especially as belief in Satan fades from our culture. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, people hardly use the word evil anymore in everyday conversation. When they do, they are often mocked, as happened recently when the general manager of the Montreal Expos baseball team was quoted as saying that professional baseball has come under the control of Satan. When these comments attracted broad attention and he was asked to elaborate, he said that "the forces of evil and darkness have a major influence on society—and baseball is a microcosm of society." Several scholars, however, have called for more serious usage of the term and more willingness to recognize evil as such.
Even less grandiose terms such as bad are fraught with multiple and conflicting meanings. Over the past two decades, bad has gradually acquired the connotation of a compliment and hence means good in some sense. Thus, one might describe a saxophone solo as "bad" and mean it as admiring praise. Similarly, students at the University of Arkansas like to wear T-shirts with pictures of a giant pig and the inscription "We bad." This is not a statement of low collective self-esteem or loyalty to Satan. The pig is the sports teams' mascot, and the "We bad" message is a boastful assertion of intimidating superiority over rivals.
In this book, I will use a broad, inclusive definition of evil. The one major restriction is that we are concerned here with evil acts by human beings. Some people might wish to regard such phenomena as earthquakes and epidemics as evil, but explaining how natural disasters occur is outside the purview of the social sciences. This work is concerned with human evil. It may be useful to consider occasional examples or findings that involve nonhuman perpetrators, but only insofar as they help to shed light on human ones. The most common and familiar form of human evil is violence, and that will be emphasized, although other forms of human evil such as oppression and petty cruelty will also be considered.
If I were approaching this work as a philosopher or a theologian, it would be of consummate importance to produce a very compelling and elegant definition of evil, a definition that would be sufficient to decide every possible case. Precise conceptual definitions are the stock-in-trade of philosophers. This book, however, is a work of social science, and science can work with fuzzy sets and gray areas. To explain the causes and processes of evil, it is sufficient to identify the main, prototypical cases.
The prototypes of human evil involve actions that intentionally harm other people. Those will be the focus of the book. Defining evil as intentional interpersonal harm leaves many gray areas. Some people may try but fail to inflict harm, and their would-be victims would never know to accuse them of evil. Surgeons may inflict pain to help their patients, and prostitutes may perform spankings to stimulate their clients, but neither group would be understood as evil. Accidental or unintended harm may seem evil to the victim but probably would not be judged as such by a dispassionate observer. A particular problem is that victims and perpetrators are often far apart in their judgments of what the perpetrator's intentions and motives were. Still, we will remain with the rough guideline that evil is in the eye of the beholder, and if someone believes that another person has intentionally harmed him or her, it is fair to speak of evil and to include it among the phenomena that this book must explain.
In addition to ruling out natural disasters, we will not use insanity as a satisfactory explanation of evil. Acts of intentional harm committed because of genuine insanity will not be covered. Despite the appeal of using "temporary insanity" to explain violent crimes, I share the widespread opinion that insanity is in fact a relatively rare and minor cause of violence. People do become extremely upset and abandon self-control, with violent results, but this is not insanity. Loss of self-control resulting from emotional distress will be covered as an important factor in evil; psychosis will not.
The grandiosity of the term evil also deserves comment. I have used it because it is the traditional term and it is important to connect my analysis with the ancient and fundamental questions about human life. But the discussion will not be restricted to great crimes and horrendous acts, although plenty of them will be featured. It is also important to understand the petty cruelties and minor transgressions of everyday life, at least insofar as they involve deliberate interpersonal harm.
There is immense heuristic value in including everyday offenses in this investigation, because more is known about them. Mass murder is much more powerful than breaking a minor promise to a friend, but it is also much less common. In addition, social scientists can study broken promises much more thoroughly and easily than they can study mass murder. The crucial assumption is that the causal processes have something in common—that learning about why people break promises can tell us something about why people commit mass murder. We must watch this assumption carefully to see if evidence contradicts it, but as a working assumption it is reasonable and hence greatly increases the chances of finding reliable answers.
Once More, without Feeling
Accustomed to looking at things through the eyes of victims, we tend to assume that killings and other violent acts must be accompanied by immense emotional turmoil. Certainly, some people do commit murder in a state of extreme rage or distress. But others do not. The emotions of the victims are not a valid guide to those of the perpetrators, and indeed perpetrators may feel little or no emotions at all.
Historian David Stannard quoted the following story told by a cavalry major who was reporting to Congress on the Indian wars in Colorado in 1864. One fine morning the soldiers came upon an Indian village and attacked it. Actually, the braves were mostly gone; it was just old folks and women and children. The officer recalled seeing a particular child, "about three years old, just big enough to walk through the sand," running along after some of the Indians who were fleeing the massacre. The major watched one cavalryman get down off his horse, aim his rifle, and shoot, but he missed the child, who was toddling along the sand about 75 yards away. Another man rode up and said, "Let me try the son of a bitch; I can hit him." He dismounted and fired from a kneeling position, but despite his boast he too missed the small moving target. A third man came up and expressed confidence that he could be more accurate. He took careful aim and fired, "and the little fellow dropped."
It is natural to react with sadness and disapproval to this story Stannard invites the reader to think about the now long forgotten little boy who probably liked to run and play by the stream, whose life with his parents and neighbors may have been full of excitement and promise until American soldiers came by and shot him dead, along with everyone he knew. One is especially shocked at the attitude of the soldiers. They are engaged in an egotistical discussion about their respective rifle skills, and their conversation treats shooting a little boy as a form of macho competition instead of a horrific act of genocidal cruelty.
I don't wish to discourage moral outrage; such acts must be recognized and condemned as evil. But that is not the focus of this book. Instead, we want to understand how ordinary people can do such things. There is no reason to think that the soldier who shot the little boy was a deranged psychopath or criminal. Indeed, three soldiers took shots at the boy before bringing him down. The apparent sense of ordinariness with which the soldiers acted is an important clue to the mental state of people who commit such acts. We have to assume that they were ordinary young American males, not unlike boys who might grow up in a nearby suburb today, playing ball for their school team. Two key themes are suggested in the soldiers' attitude.
First, they seem to have regarded shooting that child as an ordinary and unremarkable action. The one man's reference to the boy as a "son of a bitch" did not seem to reflect any rage toward the child but rather was a remark sympathetic to the other soldier's frustration at having missed, an acknowledgement of the difficulty of hitting a small moving target at that distance. The men were not talking about how awful it was to kill children, nor were they acting with demented glee or sadistic pleasure at the killings. It is an attitude devoid of moral reflection or profound emotion: a matter-of-fact attitude. It is an attitude a group of men might have while trying to tighten a plumbing fixture so it will stop leaking. Indeed, the soldiers seemed to be preoccupied with the marksmanship competition, which suggests an effort to liven up a dull and routine task. As we will see, this is an attitude more common of experienced killers than of novices. Typically, a first killing is psychologically difficult and upsetting, even traumatic. Somehow, though, people can get used to killing, so that it produces less and less reaction.
The marksmanship competition brings up the second key point, which is egotism. Each man arrived with a boast. Each was focused on impressing and outdoing his fellows. The boy's survival was a blow to each shooter's ego. Take the scene out of context: There were three men standing together, and one of them shot a three-year-old boy to death, and he was the winner. The others would have to concede his superior performance. They had fired and missed, whereas he had scored. We will see that egotism is an important and pervasive cause of evil. Unlike this case, though, egotism usually causes evil because people strike out at those who insult, criticize, or humiliate them.
In the midst of moral outrage, we can be further shocked that the soldiers would be preoccupied with winning a little informal competition among themselves. But I propose that such an attitude is actually quite an important way that people cope with performing such actions. For soldiers to dwell on moral issues and human sympathy would make it very stressful for them to carry out these duties. If we want to understand how evil happens, it will be necessary to recognize that these unemotional, problem-solving attitudes and petty egotistical games may be important. We will see that sensitive perpetrators often suffer nightmares, anxiety attacks, debilitating guilt, gastrointestinal problems, and many other signs of stress. Hence perpetrators are better off if they are not sensitive. To focus on playing such games is one way to make the job easier and less upsetting.
Impulse and Commitment
One day in Los Angeles, young Kody Scott was informed by his girlfriend Tamu that she was pregnant. He wasn't at all ready to face this fact. He did like her very much, but he didn't want to settle down and have obligations. He felt like he was just a kid himself.
Kody had joined a street gang the same day he graduated from elementary school. The gang initiation meant a lot more to him than the grade school ceremony. His gang nickname was Monster. He was doing well in the gang and didn't want to sacrifice that career to raise a child. This sense of conflicting obligations ate away at him for several months. He was needed to protect the neighborhood from its enemies; but he also shouldn't desert his girl, not to mention the baby who "would be a totally innocent party in this matter and deserved a fair chance," as he said thoughtfully. He felt the pull of both calls to duty.
Summer came, and one day he got a call from Tamu: "I'm in labor," she said. Then she asked in a scared voice whether he was coming. "Yeah", he said, feeling the conflicting pulls on him reaching a crisis. By now he was a big man, with other gangs' death threats against him spray-painted on various nearby walls. So he took his gun along.
There was no convenient way to get to the hospital; the best way was to walk down to the main street and take a car from there. He made the walk, full of his confused thoughts. Having a baby? When a car stopped at the light, he stuck his pistol in the driver's chest and told him to get out of the car. The driver obeyed, and young Kody drove off toward the hospital.
But he didn't want to get there too soon; he wanted to delay the moment of commitment a little bit longer. He took a detour through the neighborhood of one of the enemy gangs. There he saw one of his main enemies, a teenager nicknamed Bank Robber, walking along by himself. Thinking he was safe in his own neighborhood, Bank Robber was not on guard, not watching out.
Kody drove around the corner and parked. The other young man was walking right toward him without realizing it. Now it was really time to decide. Young Kody thought very hard for several minutes, about his place in the world, about what life meant to him, about who mattered most to him, about birth and death. These thoughts bounced through his head in an intense moment while his girlfriend was giving birth to his child and while an enemy walked directly toward him. He recalled feeling his mind stretch to encompass the full situation, and he felt true freedom for the first time.
The other fellow was walking right by the car. Kody called out to him to ask for a light. When Bank Robber reached into his pocket for matches, Kody told him to say his prayers and shot him twice in the chest. Bank Robber's corpse lay warm and bleeding on the street while Kody sped off in his stolen car. He drove home, went to his room, and turned on the TV. He watched "The Benny Hill Show" to wind down the evening before turning in. He had made his decision.
Kody's story differs in several respects from that of the cavalry soldiers in the Indian massacre. They seemed simply to be doing a job, whereas he was engrossed in broad, heavy thoughts before this murder. His story reveals the shift in level of thinking that often accompanies violence. He had been debating broad issues of commitment, love, obligation, and his place in the world. After the killing, however, his thoughts did not return to that level. Indeed, he went home and watched a low-budget rerun of comedy skits on television. The girlfriend giving birth to his son did not even get a phone call to say he would not be coming after all. After the crime, he left off the meaningful, reflective thinking and instead focused on mundane, trivial distractions.
The broad choice Kody was debating is a prototype of the choice between good and evil. On the one hand, he felt pulled toward settling down with a woman and child to live an orderly life and take care of his family. On the other, he was drawn toward a violent, dangerous life outside the law. As I have stated, the two core elements of evil are intentional violence and chaos, and the gang life meant both. It meant lethal fighting, and it meant rejecting the orderly, rational life that society offered.
It is also noteworthy that Kody knew his victim. The stereotype of evil, nurtured by crime stories in the modern mass media, depicts malicious intruders seeking innocent strangers almost at random. Such crimes do occur, but in the United States today, people are far more commonly victimized by people who know them than by strangers. This is particularly true for women, but it is also true for men. Despite the recent surge in stranger violence, people are most likely to suffer murder, beatings, and rape at the hands of acquaintances, relatives, and even family members.
This episode from Kody Scott's life also raises the question of choice and the related issues of self-control. One theme of this book, which will be considered carefully in Chapters 8 and 9, is that violence is often an impulsive action representing a failure of self-control—but a failure in which the person often acquiesces. Scott's killing of the other young man was neither a premeditated action nor an irresistible impulse. Rather, it was an impulsive crime that he allowed to happen, and indeed it is apparent that he helped it happen. He did not intend to go looking for trouble when he set out that evening, and he did not even think of Bank Robber until very shortly before he killed him. When he left his home and stole a car, he was intending to go to the hospital, and only an impulse and an accidental encounter gave him the opportunity to kill someone. In that sense it was an impulsive crime.
On the other hand, his detour through the enemy neighborhood was not a pure accident. To use the familiar phrase, Scott "accidentally on purpose" put himself in the position where he was confronted by a personal enemy, and then once he found himself in that situation he responded in standard fashion. The episode was neither planned nor accidental. To ask whether violent perpetrators intended to be violent is a question that often cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. In many cases, they choose or arrange situations in which they will feel that they have no choice. Self-control is thus thwarted.
Self-control will play an important role in my analysis of evil. One starts a work like this wondering "Why is there evil?" But after reviewing what is known about the causes of aggression, violence, oppression, and other forms of evil, one is led to the opposite question: Why isn't there more evil than there is? Suppose it were true that frustration, violent movies, poverty, hot weather, alcohol, and unfair treatment all cause aggression, as prominent theories have claimed. Then why wouldn't almost every adult in America have committed several murders and dozens of assaults by now? After all, how many adult Americans have not been frustrated? Have not seen violent films? Have not felt poor or suffered from hot weather or so forth?
The answer is that most violent impulses are held back by forces inside the person. In a word, self-control prevents a great deal of potential violence. Therefore, regardless of the root causes of violence, the immediate cause is often a breakdown of self-control.
This fact has important implications for understanding the spread of violence in the world. When evil increases, it does not necessarily mean that the causes of evil have become more powerful or important. Rather, it may mean that the inner controls have become weakened. Or, to put it another way: You do not have to give people reasons to be violent, because they already have plenty of reasons. All you have to do is take away their reasons to restrain themselves. Even a small weakening of self-control might be enough to produce a rise in violence. Evil is always ready and waiting to burst into the world.
The violence of inner-city residents, especially of poor young black men, has prompted various controversial theories about whether the particular social environment or the inborn genetic nature produces violence. The question of nature versus nurture is an important one in any effort to understand evil. Scott's memoir illustrates some valuable relevant points that lend support to opposite sides of the debate and suggest that any final theory may have to invoke both nature and culture.
The role of the social environment is clear, particularly from an important change in Scott's life that took place some years after the killing of Bank Robber. Scott spent some years in prison (although not for killing Bank Robber), and when he got out he was ready to resume the bitter and deadly rivalries with nearby neighborhoods. He discovered, however, that everything had changed and that former enemies were now often on friendly and casual terms. The reason for the change was that crack cocaine had appeared on the scene, and the young men were mostly busy selling it instead of shooting at one another. Now, it is ironic to think that the drug trade would reduce violence, because certainly drugs have been implicated in increasing violence in some circumstances, but in this case (and apparently many others), drugs simply meant a very profitable business opportunity, and violent shoot-outs were discouraged as being bad for business.
Thus, a small change in the structure of economic opportunity led to a substantial reduction in violent incidents. Indeed, although the American mainstream regards drugs as a foreign and evil force intruding into our nation, it does not take much thought to realize that to these young black men, selling drugs is simply the latest form of American bootstrap capitalism. Scott is quite vehement in his book that young black people feel excluded from the American dream, that the so-called land of opportunity offers no opportunities for them—and that the option of selling drugs offers a way to make very good money by marketing a product that is much in demand. For decades, such young men devoted their lives to their violent, deadly rivalries, but when an opportunity to make money appeared, many of them abandoned the violence. Thus, patterns of violence do change in major ways due to relatively small changes in the social environment.
Still, it would be premature to exclude nature from any theory about violence. Scott's memoir describes plenty of violent activity by himself and his friends—but mainly his male friends. Given the present state of knowledge, there is plenty of room to debate whether the races differ in violent tendencies, but there is much less latitude for arguing about sex differences. All over the world, and throughout history, by far the vast majority of violent acts have been committed by young males. If male aggression were simply a product of culture and socialization, as many theorists believed in the 1960s and 1970s, one would expect to find some cultures in which females are more aggressive, just by chance variation. Moreover, one would expect changes in socialization (such as the increase in mother-only households, which give women increased control over the socialization of children) to have reduced or eliminated male aggressiveness. But the facts do not fit such theories. There is no culture in which the most aggressive trouble-prone group is, say, middle-aged women. As the evidence about male aggression continues to accumulate, it is increasingly difficult to deny that some natural or genetic component plays a role.
Aggression is probably a product of the interaction of nature and nurture. The universality of some patterns, such as young male aggressiveness, suggests that nature has programmed aggression to be more pronounced in some groups than in others. Yet aggression and violence seem to be quite sensitive to many factors in the social environment. Changing the environment will probably not be enough to eliminate violence completely, but it can increase or decrease it and can channel it into particular patterns. The net effect on local mayhem could be substantial. By the same token, aggression does not erupt randomly as a product of inner forces and processes but occurs in certain situations and is a meaningful response to them.
True Crime and False
Small towns in South Carolina are not accustomed to receiving national media attention, but one of them abruptly became the center of such attention on an autumn day in 1994 when a distraught, pretty, 23-year-old blonde woman told police that her car had been stolen at gunpoint by a black man—with her two little sons strapped in the back seat. As Susan told the authorities and reporters, she had been stopped at a traffic light when the man pulled a gun and ordered her out of the car. She asked him to wait long enough to get her children out of the back seat, but he said he did not have time, pushed her out of the car, and drove off.
A massive hunt began for the car, the little boys, and the black man, with national media coverage and tips coming in even from the other side of the continent. Sympathy poured in as people felt for the young mother's pain and were appalled by the sensational nature of the crime. Car theft is a familiar offense, but the random and threatening way it was done alarmed people, and kidnapping two little boys seemed so needless and senseless. Parents all over the country worried at the thought of anonymous gunmen, especially gunmen of another race, speeding away in stolen cars with the owners' children strapped into the back seat. These facts held people's interest for the tense days during which the leads and tips led nowhere and the hope of finding the boys alive dwindled.
This titillating crime then turned out to have been a mirage. A week later, Susan Smith confessed that there had been no black man, no gun, no kidnapping. She herself had pushed the car into a small lake, where it slowly sank and drowned her sons who were sleeping in the back seat. The authorities had in fact checked the lake earlier, but only near the shoreline, and now they found the car out in the center of the lake, where it had drifted before sinking. Everyone was stunned by Susan's confession, and after a quick trial she was sentenced to life in prison.
One danger of relying on the news media to learn about crime and violence is that the major, featured stories do not generally depict the statistically most common crimes. Instead, they emphasize unusual crimes that capture the imagination or move the emotions of the public. And a major reason for those reactions is that the crime may correspond to common beliefs, including false beliefs, about evil. This book will explain the main actual causes of violent and oppressive acts, but it is also necessary to understand people's beliefs about evil and how they differ from reality.
The Susan Smith story illustrates several key features of these beliefs. The two main components of evil, the infliction of harm and the unleashing of chaos, were both involved in the kidnapping story. Abducting two little boys from their mother at gunpoint is certainly harmful. As for chaos, her story caught the public's interest because it seemed to show that the apparent safety and peace of small-town America are illusory, because gun-wielding strangers can victimize unsuspecting young mothers who stop at traffic lights.
The kidnapping story included several additional features that fit the broad stereotypes about evil, which I will call the myth of pure evil. The victim was wholly innocent, according to her story. Popular images of evil feature wicked, malicious, sadistic perpetrators inflicting senseless harm on innocent, well-meaning victims, and the kidnapping story exemplified this image.
The perpetrator, meanwhile, was not depicted as sadistic (contrary to a common feature of the myth of pure evil), but the abduction of the boys was senseless. He was not kidnapping them for ransom, for clearly the young mother had no money, and of course no ransom note or demand appeared. If he had wanted to steal the car, he would almost certainly have wished to be rid of the two boys as quickly as possible. For a car thief to bring along two children would be foolish.
The race difference is also important, despite how the inhabitants of the town tried to downplay it afterward. All over the world, people generally think of evil as a force that comes from outside their own sphere. People much more readily see foreigners or people who are different from themselves as evil, as compared to their relatively slow acknowledgment of evil among their own group. Susan Smith's story attracted attention in part because of its interracial aspect, even though statistically it is far more common for the victim and perpetrator of a crime to belong to the same race or ethnic group. Her story would have been more plausible on a statistical basis if she had invented a white perpetrator instead of a black one. That is, a white perpetrator might have had more resemblance to actual crime. But having a perpetrator from a different race increased the resemblance to the popular, deeply rooted myth of evil.
Wherever we look to try to understand perpetrators, we will find that clear insight is rendered difficult by the myth of pure evil—that is, by a certain stereotype of cruelty and violence. People are strongly attached to these particular ways of thinking about evil, and news stories or victim accounts about violence are often chosen, distorted, and adapted to correspond more closely to this myth.
The distorting effect of the myth of pure evil is responsible for another unusual feature of this book. I have mostly resisted the frequent temptation to illustrate points with episodes from popular movies or famous literature. Using such stories would have made the writing of the book much easier, because they are widely available to suit almost any given point that needs an example, and many books on evil have scarcely bothered to keep a distinction between genuine and fictional misdeeds. But it is easy to be misled by fictional examples because of the distorting power of the myth of evil. Therefore, in this book, fictional stories will be used only for illuminating the myth of evil, not its reality. The rest of the stories throughout this book, from appalling atrocities to petty everyday hurts, are true.
The Magnitude of Evil
A central fact about evil is the discrepancy between the importance of the act to the perpetrator and to the victim. This can be called the magnitude gap. The importance of what takes place is almost always much greater for the victim than for the perpetrator. When trying to understand evil, one is always asking, "How could they do such a horrible thing?" But the horror is usually being measured in the victim's terms. To the perpetrator, it is often a very small thing. As we saw earlier, perpetrators generally have less emotion about their acts than do victims. It is almost impossible to submit to rape, pillage, impoverishment, or possible murder without strong emotional reactions, but it is quite possible to perform those crimes without emotion. In fact, it makes it easier in many ways.
On the news last night, there was a case of a convicted child molester, a plump white man with short hair and a sad expression. He had been a gym teacher and wrestling coach at a school, and he had sexually molested about two dozen children, perhaps more. He was sorry; he apologized to his victims in an open statement in court, with the television cameras rolling. He had spent a couple months in jail and was ready to get on with his life, including therapy for his "problem," as he saw it. His victims were testifying about their continuing problems stemming from being raped and molested. They suffered from eating disorders, nightmares, panic attacks, problems in school.
One can understand why he might feel that it was time to put the crimes behind him and move on, while the victims remained adamant that he should stay in prison. The molester had undoubtedly gotten some pleasure from his acts, but not a great deal, and in any case those benefits were long gone and dissipated. The illicit pleasure was over, and he was perhaps truly sorry for the harm he had caused. But the suffering of his victims continued. They had lost a great deal more than he had gained.
As we will see, this is a typical difference between victims and perpetrators. Even crimes of lesser violence are marked by the magnitude gap. In robbery or burglary, for example, the value of the stolen goods is generally less to the thief than to the victim (unless cash itself is stolen). The victim loses the full value of the jewelry or a stereo, but the thief can only sell those items for a fraction of their worth. The magnitude gap is also reflected in different time perspectives. Oppression, violence, and cruelty fade much faster into the distant past for the perpetrator than for the victim.
The magnitude gap creates a moral dilemma for the social scientist and the reader. To understand perpetrators, it will be necessary to grasp what these crimes and other acts mean to them—which often entails seeing the acts as relatively minor, meaningless, or trivial. If this book tries to do its job of understanding the perpetrators, it will inevitably seem insensitive to the sufferings of victims, at least at times. Indeed, many works on evil use a vivid, passionate prose style to drive home the enormity of the crimes. But the very enormity of the crime is itself a victim's appraisal, not a perpetrator's. Perpetrators favor a detached, minimalist style, and to understand their mental processes it is essential to lean toward that style, too.
This discrepancy compounded my own personal struggle to write this book. I am a research psychologist and a university professor, and so my main task in this book is to understand the causal processes that produce evil actions. I am also a human being, however, and it is difficult to avoid reactions of shock, outrage, and repugnance at many of the heinous acts that I had to study. As a moral being, I want to protest and condemn these crimes in their full horror, but as a research scientist I often felt it necessary to try to understand how small and casual these acts were to the perpetrators.
Eventually, I concluded that appreciating the victim's perspective is essential for a moral evaluation of such acts—but it is ruinous for a causal understanding of them. The main goal of this book is psychological understanding, not moral analysis. It will be necessary for me to tune out the overwhelmingly powerful victim's perspective to understand the perpetrators, and it will be necessary for you, the reader, as well. This is a technique to aid understanding, and we must not allow it to lead to a moral insensitivity. I do not want to make apologies or offer excuses for people who commit terrible actions. I do want to understand them, however, and so it is necessary to understand the excuses, rationalizations, minimizations, and ambiguities that mark their state of mind.
A Pair of Hate Crimes
Let us contrast two hate crimes. The first was featured in a recent documentary on Home Box Office, the leading cable television channel. It occurred in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1919 and was exceptionally well documented. The city had been suffering through a series of rapes of white women by a black man or men. The idea of black men raping white women is important. Although such crimes have increased significantly in recent decades, they were quite unusual at that time—but interracial rape was often discussed back then, and false accusations were commonly used by white mobs to justify lynching black men. In any case, it was an issue about which white men felt very strongly, partly because they believed themselves responsible for the protection of white women. Racial tensions in Omaha were high that summer.
A 19-year-old white woman claimed that she had been raped by a black man while she was walking home from the movies one Thursday night in September. Will Brown, a black man who worked in a packing house, was arrested. The woman made a positive identification with high confidence. He was held in the county courthouse to await trial, but the trial never happened. On Sunday, a mob formed outside the courthouse and jail. By late afternoon, it was estimated that around 15,000 people were there, nearly all of them angry white men, many of whom had been drinking.
Around 5 P.M., the mob began to try to force its way into the courthouse building. Newspaper photos show them climbing the outer walls and breaking windows. Around 8, fires were started. Members of the mob said that someone in a blue police uniform threw a note down to them saying, "Come up, and you'll get the Negro." They did. Mr. Brown was handed over to the mob. They stripped his clothes off and beat him unconscious while dragging him down the stairs and out to the street.
He was shot more than a thousand times, and his corpse was burned. These facts are important, because they show that the mob was not satisfied with his death alone. A man can often be killed with one bullet, and a couple dozen are sufficient to make the outcome certain. To go on shooting many hundreds of times beyond this is a sign that the perpetrators were driven by something more than a desire for the victim's death. And then building a fire to burn a corpse that has already taken enough bullets to wipe out a regiment is wholly unnecessary in practical terms. The violence simply went far beyond any practical need that one could imagine. This was not a pragmatic policy, like that of the ancient Mongols, who destroyed entire cities that resisted them. To be sure, one might suggest that these white Americans wanted, like the Mongols, to intimidate potential resistance among their opponents, but a beating and perhaps a few bullets would suffice for that.
The newspaper photo was shown on television. Lines of well-dressed white men stood in front of the bonfire with Mr. Brown's visible remains. The HBO announcer made a telling point about the photo: "Almost everyone was smiling." Smiles mean happiness, pleasure, satisfaction. Such emotions suggest one reason for the thousand bullets and the bonfire: It was fun.
The problem with this explanation is that the announcer was wrong. The faces that shone out over HBO from the Omaha newspaper photo were not smiling, with one possible exception. Most showed no emotion. To me this seemed obvious, but as a way of checking I showed the tape with no explanation and no sound to several other social scientists and asked them how many were smiling. They too saw only one smile, and a questionable one at that.
Whether those men were smiling or not may seem trivial. It might matter little to the victim or his family, and there is no legal or moral relevance to whether the faces of the killers showed smiles or not. But it does serve to highlight several issues that are central to this book.
One is the hard but crucial question of whether the perpetrators of violence enjoy their actions. In a word, is sadism a major cause of evil? Sadism means receiving direct pleasure from hurting others. In this case, it is important for any theory of evil to know whether those men derived pleasure and enjoyment from killing that man, or, as an alternative and lesser possibility, did they get pleasure from normal sources (for example, camaraderie, good jokes) while they were killing that man?
Then we must consider the fact that the announcer was wrong. Why? How did that mistake happen? The announcer's mistake corresponded to a stereotype of evil: Perpetrators get pleasure out of inflicting harm. This brings up the issue of appearance (or myth) and reality. Whether sadism actually creates evil will be an important question in this book, but there is no debate about the role of sadistic pleasure in the common stereotype of evil. From medieval images of Satan to bad guys in today's low-budget action films, one repeatedly notes the theme that perpetrators of evil enjoy their violent and cruel actions. They laugh and congratulate each other while harming and killing victims. This is obvious even in children's cartoons. The announcer's comment about the bogus smiles is important as a mistake because it embodies a popular image of evil as based on sadistic pleasure. The men who lynched young Mr. Brown were clearly breaking multiple laws and violating his rights, but perhaps they only appear as fully evil if they are also depicted as having fun doing it.
Instead of being swept along by preconceptions, it is necessary to ask, in simple curiosity and with genuine open-mindedness: How were those men actually feeling? It is difficult to be certain, but one can make a fair guess based on what they said. Several made comments about "teaching these fiends a lesson," which can be understood at two levels.
At one level, the lynch mob presumably believed that Mr. Brown had in fact raped the young woman who identified him, and they probably suspected him of the other rapes that had been occurring. Of course they should have allowed the authorities to handle the manner legally, and their opinions about his guilt or innocence did not in any way justify what they did, except to themselves. But to understand their mental state, it is probably essential to appreciate that they thought they were punishing a man who had committed terrible crimes against the innocent women they were supposed to protect.
The other level involves attitudes toward black people in general. Lynchings and other violence by whites against blacks have long been motivated by resentment at the upward mobility of ambitious black people. Many white people had campaigned, fought, and even died to free America's black people from slavery, but when the descendants of slaves began to want to share the jobs, neighborhoods, and other opportunities that the whites enjoyed, many whites discovered that this was not the outcome they had been seeking. The image of a black man raping a white woman was a symbol (again, one that usually lacked substantive reality) of black people intruding on white privileges and displacing them. Thus, at this second level, killings like the one in Omaha may have been meant to teach black people in general the lesson that they should stay in their place and give white people the respect that white people deserve.
The role of economic competition was shown in a classic research finding by Hovland and Sears. They examined the relationship between cotton prices and lynch mob violence in the Old South. A significant negative correlation was found, and subsequent work with more sophisticated statistics has upheld that conclusion: When prices went down, lynchings went up. The mobs probably consisted of men who made their living growing and selling cotton, and a drop in prices meant that business was bad. Financial hardship made people more willing to countenance and even to perpetrate violence against people they disliked. In contrast, in times of relative prosperity, white people were more tolerant toward black citizens, at least in the sense of being less prone to kill them illegally over suspected or trumped-up crimes.
The lynch mob is still the most vivid symbol of hate crimes in America, but lynchings are largely a thing of the past. There are still plenty of hate crimes today, but they take a different form. Indeed, the very racial direction of hate crimes has seen a fundamental reversal. According to an FBI report on violence during 1993, black people were four times more likely than white people to commit hate crimes.
A rare perpetrator's memoir described one such recent crime in Virginia. The author, at the time a teenager, was hanging out on his neighborhood corner with his friends one afternoon when they saw "a white boy, who appeared to be about eighteen or nineteen years old ... pedaling a bicycle casually through the neighborhood." One of the black fellows pointed him out to the others, called him a derogatory name, and suggested that he must be crazy to have come there. The group's response "was automatic." They ran after the white boy, knocked him down, and beat him unconscious while cars drove past. They kicked his head until blood gushed from his mouth, and they tried to damage his sex organs. The author said that when he realized how badly the victim was injured, he backed away, as did several others, but one of his comrades continued "like he'd gone berserk" and even topped off the episode by picking up the bicycle and smashing it down on the victim as hard as he could. The boy on the ground did not even flinch with the impact, apparently being out cold at that moment.
As I have already suggested, one must generally remain skeptical when victims or moralistic bystanders claim that perpetrators get pleasure out of inflicting harm. In this case, however, the perpetrator's own memoirs claim that he enjoyed such crimes. "Fucking up white boys like that made us feel good inside," he wrote, adding that as they walked away they laughed and compared boasts about who had done the most damage. He recalled that during the assault, "Every time I drove my foot into his balls, I felt better." He said that when his older brother got his driver's license, the gang would cruise around nearby white neighborhoods, picking out vulnerable targets and beating them close to death.
Yet even these remarks do not indicate that the motive was the sheer enjoyment of inflicting harm. The satisfaction described by the black perpetrator was one of revenge, and indeed he gave his story on the crime the title "Get-back," a slang term for revenge. He said that white people had oppressed black people for a long time, and so he and his friends felt entitled to take revenge on whoever fell into their clutches. As he wrote, in retrospect "our random rage in the old days makes perfect sense to me," and he said that while beating the teenage cyclist he thought back over past racial slights and injustices.
The role of simple racial antagonism is not to be denied. As the violent young black man put it, he felt that some of the blows were directed at the boy on "General Principle—just 'cause you white." Obviously, this particular boy had never done anything to him or his friends, and in fact they did not know who he was. They had no grievance toward him in particular, but they claimed two reasons for attacking him. One was that people who shared his skin color had mistreated people who shared their skin color. The other was simply that they did not like his skin color.
Central to this young man's grievances—and the same theme is found in most works about the young black outlaw today—was that white people in general had humilia ted his people, including his parents and possibly himself. The brutal assault on the boy, and the later similar crimes he mentioned, were partly meant to carry a message to white people: They should stay in their place and give black people the respect that black people deserve.
What other common features do the Omaha and Virginia hate crimes have? Both mobs thought their acts were justified. Moreover, in both cases there seemed to be a sense that the victim should bear the guilt for misdeeds by others of his race. There were some differences, to be sure. The white mob had perhaps more reason to blame this individual victim and less reason to blame the racial group in general; the reverse was true for the black mob. Still, the hate crime was felt to be a response to bad actions on the victim's side and probably on more than one level. The pretext for both attacks was ultimately weak, which indicates that deeper antagonisms lay behind the crimes. These violent acts were both ready to happen before the circumstance presented itself.
We will see that perpetrators often believe themselves to be totally justified in responding to perceived attacks by their victims. Or almost totally justified. There are important elements of truth in these beliefs more often than we would like to think. The popular myth of evil depicts malicious, sadistic perpetrators and innocent victims. Some incidents do actually conform to that stereotype, but more often violence is a result of mutual, escalating provocations and grievances. From the perpetrators' perspective, they could fairly point to provocations that had some basis in reality. Will Brown had been positively identified as having raped a teenage white woman that week. White people had oppressed and discriminated against black people for a long time.
Another feature of these two crimes concerns how people think of themselves—whether one uses the term pride, self-esteem, narcissism, or another. I prefer the neutral term egotism, which means both the good kind, as in healthy high self-esteem, and the bad kind, as in being conceited or arrogant. Egotism simply means thinking well of yourself (regardless of whether those thoughts are justified or not).
Today, it is common to propose that low self-esteem causes violence, but the evidence shows plainly that this idea is false. Violent acts follow from high self-esteem, not from low self-esteem. This is true across a broad spectrum of violence, from playground bullying to national tyranny, from domestic abuse to genocide, from warfare to murder and rape. Perpetrators of violence are typically people who think very highly of themselves. This phenomenon will be explained at greater length in Chapter 5. In this chapter, though, it has already come up several times. The soldiers who shot the Indian child, for example, were competing to prove their superiority.
Actually, it is more precise to say that violence ensues when people feel that their favorable views of themselves are threatened or disputed by others. As a result, people whose self-esteem is high but lacks a firm basis in genuine accomplishment are especially prone to be violent, because they are most likely to have their narcissistic bubble burst. If you think you are a great success and you really are, most people you meet are likely to confirm that reality, and you may even be able to ignore the ignorant few who fail to recognize it. On the other hand, if you are not a success but merely think you are, you may frequently encounter other people whose opinion of you is less flattering than your self-image. That is a common recipe for violence. If you are like most people, you will feel like lashing out at anyone who says you are not as great as you thought. The more inflated your self-esteem is, the more common such encounters are.
The role of such vulnerable egotism is apparent in both these hate crimes. As we saw, white people became violent against blacks when they felt that blacks were threatening to become equals and take away their special privileges. The mob wanted to teach black people a lesson about staying in their place. In a similar fashion, the black mob wanted to teach white people a lesson about staying in their place and to punish them for having treated black people with disrespect. Both mobs saw their victims as having made claims on status that were not permitted to them—as having been unfairly egotistical. The violence was meant partly as a way of putting the victim's fellows down, of teaching an apparently overdue lesson in humility.
Because statements about race are easily misinterpreted, it is important that I make myself clear on this point. The history of hate crimes does not offer either whites or blacks much basis for claiming moral superiority. In fact, this history suggests that black and white people are all too similar. Both turn violent when they feel that others are not giving them the respect they deserve. Both have proved the fallacy of thinking that you are entitled to special respect on the basis of your race; society may work better if people try to earn respect as individuals, by their virtuous acts and achievements. More important, low self-esteem does not explain or cause violence. Rather, unsatisfied egotism—one form of high self-esteem—is what makes people lash out at others.
Both of these hate crimes went far beyond what had any practical value or was warranted by the circumstances. Thus, both suggest the existence of latent racial animosity waiting for an occasion to break out. As we will see, people almost universally form into groups and hold negative attitudes toward other, competing groups. When people believe that their rights and their group pride have been injured by someone from another group, they are all too often ready to respond in a violent fashion that goes beyond any practical or instrumental use. Groups are a vital part of human social life and are necessary for survival, but they also reflect a built-in predisposition toward a certain pattern of antagonism.
A Young Woman's Faith
The little family was disappointed on that January morning in 1962 when the new baby turned out to be a girl instead of the hoped-for boy, but soon they forgot their dismay and loved the precious child. Like most babies in North Korea, the first words little Hyun Hee learned were "Thank you, Kim Il Sun, Our Great Leader." She was taught about the distant enemy, America, which her father told her was "the worst place in the world."
The collective egotism, the high self-esteem, of North Korea fits very well with the standard recipe for violence. North Korea regards itself as the best and greatest land in the world, but it is constantly presented with reminders that other countries have somehow become richer, more powerful, and more successful. Hence, its sense of superiority is fragile and vulnerable to being questioned.
Between her father's connections and her own talents and hard work, the girl grew up to be a success. She got into the only decent university in the land, named of course after the great leader himself. It was difficult to keep up with her studies while making time for the mandatory farmwork in the countryside and the mandatory military training. Consistent with Communist beliefs, women were treated exactly the same as men, including the same athletic tests and hand-to-hand unarmed fights against black belt (male) instructors. (She saw other women get broken noses or ribs, but she won her bouts.) The only noticeable difference was that the women's training included gynecological examinations to ensure that they kept their virginity. After doing well on many tests, she was chosen to become a special agent for the foreign intelligence service.
One of the biggest days of her life came when she was summoned to the service's national headquarters. The director gave her a mission that he said had come from specific orders handwritten by the Dear Leader himself, indicating supreme importance. In fact, the director said that this was probably the most important mission ever attempted by the foreign intelligence department and that it would decide "our entire national destiny." She and her male comrade were to destroy a South Korean airplane. The director explained that the airplane's destruction would create a broad sense of chaos and uncertainty that would prevent South Korea from hosting the upcoming 1988 Olympic Games as scheduled. This in turn would lead to the reunification of Korea, and that was "the great goal of our generation." If she succeeded, she would be a national hero. She would be permitted to return to her family and retire from active duty "with every luxury the Party can provide." She wrote later that she never understood precisely how blowing up an airplane full of tourists would lead to reunification, but she did not question the director, even in her own mind. She knew that there was much about politics that she did not understand, and she had faith in her national leaders and superiors.
The young woman was overcome with feelings: awe, dread, gratitude, responsibility, patriotism. She did not, however, think or feel anything about the moral questions, "not for a moment," even though the mission would mean killing more than a hundred people. "The act of sabotage was a purely technical operation," she thought. In fact, she wrote that it was not until after the mission succeeded and she had been captured, not until she walked into the South Korean courtroom and faced the families of her victims, that the real meaning of her violent act hit home.
The mission itself encountered only minor hitches. Their contacts met them at the Baghdad airport and gave them the bomb. She went into the ladies' room and set the timer while sitting in a toilet stall, working methodically and with no thoughts to spare for guilt or remorse. They smuggled the bomb aboard KAL flight 858 in a briefcase and put it in the overhead compartment. At the stopover in Abu Dhabi, they got off but left the bomb. As the plane took off, she had her first disturbing thoughts: She recalled the South Korean people on the plane and how they had been laughing, all on their way home from a long journey. The next day, when she heard about the plane crash, her feelings were mainly just relief at the success of her mission and pride at having contributed to the imminent reunification of her country.
She was captured, and only at this point did she begin to suffer inwardly over what she had done. She began to have nightmares, such as that her family was on board that flight, that she was shouting at them to deplane but they weren't listening. The extremely intense misery and anxiety of these dreams would linger even after she woke up. Gradually, she came to feel terrible guilt much of the time. She confessed her crime, pleaded guilty, was sentenced to death, and then was pardoned by the South Korean government.
Three important points are illustrated by this story. First, during the act, her focus was on here-and-now details, and she was untroubled by guilty thoughts about the innocent people she would be killing. Still, after she went through with it, she was surprised to find how disturbed she was. The constant nightmares, from which she often awoke screaming, are one fairly common result of committing such violent actions, and they are a major source of stress even for policemen and soldiers who shoot someone in the line of duty. I have said that the mythical image of evil involves getting pleasure and enjoyment out of killing. In reality, however, most people have very unpleasant reactions to killing, at least at first.
Second, her act of vicious terrorism was motivated by the highest ideals and principles. It was not a spontaneous act of hatred toward her victims, although she had dutifully learned to regard people from non-Communist countries as enemies. She was not seeking personal gain, although rewards had been promised. Her main reason was to serve her country. She loved her country, she trusted her leaders and superiors, and she honestly believed that her mission would help lead to the triumphant reunification of Korea, in some way that she could not precisely understand. In retrospect, she was committing a horrible, pointless atrocity, but during the episode she thought she was doing something good: not just acceptable or justifiable, but something strongly and positively good. As we will see, many especially evil acts are performed by people who believe they are doing something supremely good.
Third, her action did not lead to the desired goal. She succeeded in blowing up the airplane, but the expected consequences did not materialize. The 1988 Olympics were held in Seoul anyway, despite the director's assurances that the airplane bombing would prevent them. Even more important, the reunification of Korea under North Korean leadership not only did not happen but was in no way furthered by the bombing. That reunification looks less likely than ever. In operational terms, the mission succeeded; in terms of its basic, political purpose, it was a complete failure.
This pattern of long-term pragmatic failure will be found repeatedly. Most robberies bring only a few dollars in income. Rapes typically bring only minimal sexual pleasure. Torture almost never elicits useful, accurate information. Terrorism and assassination do not bring about the political goals they were meant to promote. Most murderers soon regret what they did as a pointless, self-defeating act emerging from a trivial dispute. Governments that use repressive violence to silence dissent do not end up with the popular support they envisioned. People who beat up their loved ones do not achieve the family relationships they want. Violence is a relatively common means but not a very effective one, especially when judged by its long-range consequences. Evil cannot be satisfactorily understood in terms of rational efforts to solve problems and pursue goals.
|Ch. 1||The Question of Evil, and the Answers||30|
|Ch. 2||Victims and Perpetrators||33|
|Ch. 3||The Myth of Pure Evil||60|
|Ch. 4||Greed, Lust, Ambition: Evil as a Means to an End||99|
|Ch. 5||Egotism and Revenge||128|
|Ch. 6||True Believers and Idealists||169|
|Ch. 7||Can Evil Be Fun? The Joy of Hurting||203|
|Ch. 8||Crossing the Line: How Evil Starts||251|
|Ch. 9||How Evil Grows and Spreads||282|
|Ch. 10||Dealing with Guilt||305|
|Ch. 11||Ambivalence and Fellow Travelers||343|
|Ch. 12||Why Is there Evil?||375|
Posted November 1, 2005
There is no point in me repeating what others have said... it would be almost word for word, because I do agree what the people who came before me wrote... To immediately dismiss this book as insensitive would be wrong. To call it bad would be wrong. This book is what society needs... and too often, there is an imbalance between what happens to the victim and what happens to the perpetrator... while I do not condone what the perpetrator has done, I still do not condone what people do to the perpetrator... which is demonizing in many senses... And this book has things in it which support my point of view, which is why I am extremely grateful that I got it as a gift from a great friend.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.