Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


The Puppets

Perpetrating harm on others is often carried out by people who would not think up the acts but who somehow get inspired by someone else to follow through. Many of the people who carried out Hitler's plan believed they were following a sacred mission, yet would likely never have done the same things in another context. Manson's followers thought they were carrying out the plan of a godlike man and were willing to murder and even cut a fetus from inside a woman's stomach.

Lt William Calley (CORBIS)
Lt William Calley

In the massacre of an entire hamlet in Vietnam in 1968, Lt. William Calley claimed that he was following orders. According to some counts, he was responsible for giving the order to kill between 400 and 500 civilians in a matter of three hours who were unable to defined themselves, slaughtering women, babies, and the elderly without mercy. Some of his men raped and killed with abandon, and then afterward took a break for lunch. By their measure of success in that strange war, a body count of that magnitude was cause for celebration. They had been raised in families where different values prevailed, but in the moment, in that place, they did what seemed right. In Army circles, they were a success. Back home, they were viewed as savage killers.

Fred Katz, sociologist and author of Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil, examined the mechanisms of our ability to start out innocently and by gradual increments get into position to enact real evil.

One possible causal factor, Katz points out, is that we tend to separate out truly atrocious evils such as the Holocaust and call them unique. He believes that this is a mistake, because it prevents us from seeing how evil grows out of the ordinary. While psychopathy and sadism are linked to some evil acts, there are no special traits or behaviors that might set many malicious people apart as "monsters." Most evil that occurs is done by ordinary people, and ironically those very same behaviors can assist us in living humanely. Defining evil as "behavior that deliberately deprives innocent people of their humanity, from small scale assaults on their dignity to outright murder," Katz focuses on how people actually behave. Evil can beguile people in a way the makes them see it in a different lightone that permits them to manifest it. Hitler may have devised a wicked plan, but ordinary people zealously carried it out.

Here's how:

  • Evil can be made acceptable through certain frameworks, such as nationalism or the service of a vision, or "for science."
  • People addressing immediate problems may not see the larger context but may still contribute to its progress with their mundane activities.
  • It can be presented as part of a career, which involves the person through small, incremental steps as merely advancing himself.
  • It can be done in obedience to an authority who commands it.
  • It can be diffused throughout a culture so that no one's cruelty stands out, and some evil acts within a culture of cruelty can even be rewarded within that culture. Taking initiative to do evil in such a context enhances one's status.}

Katz talks about how packaging and "riders" quietly organize life toward certain ideas and behaviors. Riders link one sector of life to another, the way Hitler's grandiose vision of racial purity and German superiority linked politics, economics, social life, and even religion. Within such visions, evil can become legitimate: operating a crematorium served the vision and made the operator somewhat heroic. People loyal to a cause can harm others when they understand it as part of the cause. It's a "higher" good and those participants even view themselves as acting selflessly.

One thing that Katz does not discuss but which is often at play in people feeling okay about harming others is the notion of Groupthink. Someone designs a stance and others join in. Soon it's "us" against "them." We're morally right, they're morally wrong. Groupthink creates insular thinking and exaggerates external threats. The group leader implies that there is no better solution than his, there's pressure within for homogeneity, and no one is allowed to argue or question. Anyone who does gets vilified and mocked. It's a collective rationalization with self-appointed "mindguards" that helps stereotype people outside the group and make it okay to sacrifice or get rid of them. There's no real survey of alternatives or of the risks involved in the chosen option, and the boundaries soon close in and calcify. It's insidious and self-blinding.

Katz does show that atrocities such as My Lai that occurred in Vietnam had a similar dynamic. "The Vietnam package of values," he writes, "was a rearranged version of the peacetime American values on which most soldiers were brought up." They knew not to kill innocent people, but they were able to reframe the Viet Cong as part of "them," and thus not innocent, even if civilian. The priority not to kill was subordinated to other priorities within the same package.

The rider, Katz explains, places an imprint on every value in the package. When killing the enemy is the rider, as with bin Laden, Manson, and Lt. Calley, it reorganizes the values in the package. The measure of success depends on the rider, and the rider on the ultimate vision. For Hitler, national shame had to be avoided, national pride and grandeur promoted. For bin Laden, the world will only be healed when Americans are eliminated. Those visions arrange priorities and fuel passion in the masses to manifest the elements of the vision.

There is no doubt that there are people who do love to inflict torment and are happy for the licenses of war, but there are those who do not love to do so but who will do so anyway when the context inspires them. It's not the torture they love but the vision that such acts serve. According to Katz, they may be committed to only certain parts of a package, but will nevertheless carry on other activities demanded by the package as well. They go along, carrying out evil without being committed specifically to evil.

In other words, a physician who is not committed to killing human beings may, when posted to Auschwitz, participate in killing them if the package allows him to reframe the act in a nobler way. Exterminations, for example, were referred to as "special actions," and the language helped those who participated to gradually adjust. Outside moral codes fade away as the context defines what is right and wrong. In a culture of cruelty, others can be exploited in any manner one wishes. The prevailing values allow it, even encourage it, and some within that culture flaunt their particular ability to be cruel. It escalates and becomes commonplace.

"Cruelty became the distinctive content of the informal culture among the Auschwitz guards," Katz remarks. "A premium was placed on creating cruelty and treating it as a from of creative art."

It's one thing to be raised within such values, and therefore to not know better; it's quite another to adopt them after one has already known another way. For such people, there is no excuse for doing evil.


Another example of people who behave according to the dictates of a culture of cruelty is the training of the henchmen for Roy DeMeo, a one-time butcher's apprentice and the most feared hit man for the Gambino crime family. He'd grown up a bully, ambitious and opportunistic. Raised in a middle-class family, he was nevertheless strongly impressed with the shiny cars of the gangsters and soon decided to make his living as a loanshark. Eventually he became a member of New York's Gambino family, doing his first hit at age 32, and quickly thereafter he selected his associates in murder. Once a person killed, he believed, that person could do anything.

Because he could stomach it and because he thought it proved his power, he devised a specific form of getting rid of someone, which came to be known as "the Gemini Method." He trained a crew of young mensome teenagersto participate in a horrifying "dis-assembly" line. The target person would be taken to a house or would be invited into DeMeo's Gemini Lounge (or in one case, the meat department at a supermarket). He'd be shot by one person, wrapped in a towel by another to prevent blood from messing the place up, and repeatedly stabbed in the heart by yet a third person to quickly decrease blood flow. Then he'd be cleaned up, allowed to "settle" for 45 minutes, drained of blood, laid out on a swimming pool liner, beheaded and hacked into pieces that were packaged like meat and tossed into a dump. Just like taking apart a deer, DeMeo told his gang.

Such "disappearances" happened frequently and systematicallythere were perhaps as many as two hundredand those five men involved in the assembly line said they got a kick out of it. According to Gene Mustain and Jerry Capeci in their account, Murder Machine, "They used to say killing made them feel like God."

Even worse are those who derive their satisfaction from exploiting and harming children.