Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Evil As the Higher Good

The World Trade Center (AP)
The World Trade Center (AP)

On September 11, 2001, 19 Islamic fanatics boarded four different American passenger jets. At some point during the flight, they took over. Assuring the passengers that everything would be okay, they took over the pilots' seats. Two planes crashed into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and one was aborted in a field over Pennsylvania, believed to be aiming toward another symbolic American structure.

More than five thousand people lost their lives, many jumping from floors high up in the WTC, others feeling the buildings come crashing down on top of them. Hundreds died in terror in the planes.

Osama bin Laden (AP)
Osama bin Laden

The suspected mastermind of these shocking events was Osama bin Laden, a Saudi-born Islamic fundamentalist millionaire operating out of Afghanistan who had declared his intent to kill Americans with terrorist acts. He was implicated in an aborted attempt in 1993 to bomb the WTC, and the trials for those terrorists had just ended in convictions, with sentencing pending. He was also implicated in the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa. It was his intent to wage a "jihad" or holy war, with the "fatwa," or religious imperative, to eliminate Americans.

He had warned journalists of a "very big one," and many believe in retrospect that he referred to the September 11th bombings. His stated purpose for these acts is to purify his Muslim land of all nonbelievers, and since history shows that American aggression has not distinguished between soldiers and civilians, he will retaliate in kind. To him, it is acceptable to kill American civilians; all are targets, and to rouse passion in his followers to do the same, he preaches that it is "the duty of every individual Muslim who is able, in any country where this is possible."

The Pentagon on Fire (AP)
The Pentagon on Fire (AP)

U.S. citizens paint him as the devil; his supporters see him as a folk hero who can lead them in a righteous cause. He is a role model for extremist Islamic militants and he has high praise for followers such as the suicidal hijackers who are willing to be martyrs for the cause. So far, he has rallied thousands to his side who cheered for what took place on September 11th and who hope for more of the same.

Is evil really just a matter of how one views it? Even in the U.S., there are people who view their atrocities as actions taken in the service of a higher good.


Charles Manson
Charles Manson

In 1969, Charles Manson urged cult members to go on a killing spree. He'd formed this group from wayward kids in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, giving them a home on a ranch outside Los Angeles and a sense of belonging to something. His disciples were known as "the Family," and his vision of "Helter-Skelter" meant that blacks would rise up to massacre whites. However, they would need the help of a white tribal leader to govern things, and Manson was the man for the job. On August 9, he sent his disciples to kill some prominent Hollywood people, telling them to make it look like the job of black militants. At the home of Roman Polanski, they used guns and knives to slaughter five people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate. Then one of the killers used blood to write the word "Pig" on a door.

The following night, they did the same to a married couple, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. They carved "War" into the man's chest and used blood to write "Death to Pigs" and "Healter Skelter" on the walls. Then they had a snack before leaving.

One of them, Susan Atkins, spilled the beans while in jail for another crime, and the killers were arrested, tried, and convicted.


A man from Decker, Michigan, quietly drove the yellow Ryder rental truck through the streets of Oklahoma City on the morning of August 19, 1995two years to the day of the tragedy at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas that ended the lives of 83 people. He parked outside the Alfred P. Murrah government building and walked away. By the time the 4000-pound bomb exploded at 9:02 a.m., he was blocks away, with earplugs hindering the noise of a huge building collapsing. Then he got into a beat-up car without a license plate and drove away. He considered himself a hero, without a thought for the 168 men, women, and children who were dead or dying, and the more than 500 who would turn up injured. To him, they were "collateral damage," just the price to be paid for sending the government a dramatic message.

He was caught, tried, and executed, and his actions had the unsettling effect of letting the American people know that terrorists lived among us.

McVeigh was an ordinary person who had developed an idealism that demanded violence. Manson's followers were just kids off the streets who wanted to play their role in his "family." Under other circumstances, any of them might just as easily have been pro-social rather than antisocial. Let's look at what makes the difference.

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