Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


A Look At Evil's Face

"Evil is best understood as privation, as the absence of an appreciation for the goodness of the world and for the full humanity of all the creatures in the world." Andrew Delbanco

James Byrd Jr. (AP)
James Byrd Jr.

To know evil, you have only to stand on the road in Jasper, Texas, where on June 7, 1998, three white men offered a ride to a 49-year-old black man, James Byrd Jr., who was on his way home from an anniversary party. Instead of taking him where he wanted to go, they beat, kicked, and tortured him merely for the color of his skin, and then spray-painted his face black before chaining him by the ankles to the back of their truck. As they sped down an isolated logging road, dragging him for nearly three miles, he tried keeping his head up, but his skin ripped off, his bones broke, and his elbows were shattered to the bone. When his head hit a culvert, it was ripped off, along with his right arm. What was left of his torso was dumped in front of a church for its black congregation to find. In TNT's documentary, The Faces of Fear, Dr. Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University points out multiple circles still evident on the road, drawn there to mark 75 separate places where Byrd's body parts were found. "On this road," Asante says quietly, "I am confronted with the immensity of the cruelty that can exist in the human heart."

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden

To know evil, you have only to see the skeletal remains of the World Trade Center's twin towers in Manhattan, where two hijacked American planes ended the lives of thousands, and recall the words of Osama bin Laden: "We don't differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians. They are all targets in this fatwa." Many workers just getting their morning coffee jumped from smoking windows to their deaths or waited in full awareness as the massive buildings collapsed on them.

The problem of evil is ancient. It might even be archetypalso much a part of us that we'll never eradicate it. Andrew Delbanco tells us in his book, The Death of Satan, that Americans have lost their sense of evil, and he discusses how we have become more tolerant of the many forms of evil in our midst. It's increasingly visible, yet we have lost a vocabulary for talking about it, and our explanations for it have never been weaker. The unending cases of hatred, brutality, and wanton callousness make it clear that there are people who intend great harm and we must be alert. Forensic practitioners are attempting to devise a way to define it more clearly in court, so that legal consequences can be precisely determined.

Some people have no trouble naming an act evil. Others prefer not to use that term; rather they interpret "evil" as a symptom of imbalance or dysfunction. Philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and even biologists have all grappled with the notion of the irredeemable person, and even talk show hosts wonder who is more reprehensible: the serial killer or those who hawk serial killer trading cards. Can we really determine how the malignant personality forms? Many theorists have tried, yet their "answers" have not eradicated malfeasance from our midst. Perhaps we don't want it gone; perhaps it feeds a hunger that we fail to acknowledge. It may be that our focus on {Pulp Fiction} sociopaths and mothers who drown their children diverts our attention from the dividends of our own fascinationthat stories about people who perpetrate heinous crimes provide a degree of arousal that we miss in our safety-conscious culture.

Given the great diversity of evil acts and the many attempts to simplify it into some clear theory of violence, we'll look at the subject from three angles.

  • The most obvious evil: acts of hatred, thrill-kills, and child murder
  • Reframing: how the evil-doer sees it
  • The psychology of evil

While there are many forms of evil, from murderous psychopaths who repeat their crimes with escalating brutality to thrill killers who want to see how it feels to take a life, perhaps no evil is quite as chilling as hatred-inspired acts sanctified by an ideology. One day a group of the most powerful bureaucrats in Nazi Germany met to coldly harvest one of the most hideous agendas against others that has ever been known in the history of humankind.


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