Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

EVIL, PART THREE: DEPRAVED INDIFFERENCE

The Bad and the Ugly

There's no end to the number of ways we can portray evil acts among human beings in this world. From genocide to torture to racism to sadism, some people just develop a badness that inspires them to act out. They may start as ordinary children or they may have a mental illness, personality disorder, or even a brain lesion that will influence their paths. Often we want to think of them as "different" so we can reassure ourselves that they're monsters and that such monstrosity would never arise out of normal people.

Yet it does.

There appears to be no single satisfactory explanation covering the full range of evil acts. While there's research to support theories about brain damage, brain disorders, environmental stimulants, abuse, and poor role models, it appears that the development of an evil person relies on a unique combination of events. Two people may both be exposed to a violent parent or have dissociative seizures, but if only one commits evil deeds, those factors are not directly causative.

Dahmer, Gacy & Bundy (AP)
Dahmer, Gacy & Bundy
(AP)

Those who study evil believe we all have the capacity for it, but only some of us actually act on it, and that's usually a matter of choice. Despite the fact that psychiatrist Daniel Amen proved with brain scans that there were problems in the brains of 250 violent felons that diminished their ability to make judgments and increased their fixation on dark fantasies, people like Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted Bundy clearly did make judgments. Despite having strong fantasies, they tried to avoid the consequences of breaking the law, indicating that their depravity involved sufficient intentional self-awareness that they were able to control it under certain circumstances. It's not about only brain or moods or disorders.

Andrea Yates (CORBIS)
Andrea Yates
(CORBIS)

Maybe Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children, did suffer post-partum psychosis from severe depression, but can we say the same about the young woman at a dance who gave birth, trashed her newborn, and then went back to the dance? One explanation will not suffice, not even where there are shared similarities.

The fact is, new forms of evil are being thrust upon us, the likes of which have never been seen. When Osama bin Laden's crew of suicidal pilots allegedly trained for years to die and then used our own passenger jets against us, it was more than an act of war. It was the ultimate form of trickery and contempt for our society. The masterminds later sat around over dinner and laughed about their success, praising Allah for being so good to them.

And yet even after that tragedy, U.S. citizens still sought entertainment that involved the evil side of human nature. We were horrified by what had happened to us but we didn't shun depictions of evil. So perhaps we're influenced by a subtle cultural factor that's similar to but less overt than what we've noted in so-called "cultures of evil."

People who grow up in societies where violence is made mundane and where entertainment routinely dehumanizes will become inured to many vile acts, and as long as they're willing to pay to see or read about these acts, the commercial media is going to feed them. Note how popular the HBO series The Sopranos has become, and look at the persistent violence, lack of respect for moral order, and inconsistency of character it depicts in nearly every episode. Family values? Tony Soprano's family is inwardly falling apart, and yet awards committees uphold the show as quality entertainment.

Kenneth Bianchi (CORBIS)
Kenneth Bianchi
(CORBIS)

It's not that we actively seek out true evil. We simply have psychological mechanisms that allow us to get close to it. Day after day, the media highlights the evil acts of criminals, but fails to balance this with equal time for the acts of good and beneficent people. Thus, people who worship media-created celebrities will be more excited by the evil ones. That, too, creates a flourishing subculture of evil-worshippers, some members of which go on to commit acts of atrocity in the name of one of their heroes, as we saw at Columbine. Even convicted Hillside Strangler, Ken Bianchi, persuaded a female worshipper to go out and attempt to kill someone. Fortunately, she failed but not from want of doing so.

It seems that evil is not simply a mental illness, although some who commit evil have a personality or mood disorder.

Evil is not simply hard-wired, although some who commit evil are born psychopaths.

Evil is not simply a brain disorder, although some who do evil have a disordered brain.

Evil is not simply genetic, although some evildoers are related to each other.

Evil is not just a path to self-empowerment or self-enrichment, though some evildoers seek such benefits.

Evil is not just the manifestation of an extreme ideology, though some evil is done within that framework.

What evil appears to be is a developmental process. It evolves through a reciprocal interaction of choice, circumstances, and the manner in which an individual processes symbols of evil that are overtly or covertly affirmed within a culture, coupled with the way that person spins fantasies permeated with deep-rooted needs. There's no doubt that evil is a pathology, but there's also no doubt that entire cultures can participate in the dehumanizing process that inspires evil acts and have little awareness of that fact. Even if we find a way to reduce or stop the evil that one type of person commits, if evil arises from nature or culture, then there will always be those who develop in ways we don't yet understand and who may shock us with novel behavior.

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