The Roots of Evil: What Makes a Bomber Strike, or a Mom Kill Her Kids? How Science Is Shedding Light on Our Darkest Deeds
Scanning the family photographs, we see images of an apparently normal child, as ordinary as Sunday dinner with Grandma. Timothy McVeigh stands proudly behind his sister, plays with a model airplane, frolics in the swimming pool. But what America yearns to see is something quite different: that the man the child has become--the killer with the angular face, the buzz cut, the hard and narrow eyes--is not a man at all, but a monster. We want to see Timothy McVeigh as evil incarnate, as Satan, as depravity in human form. He has willfully and gratuitously inflicted harm on others--the very definition of an evil act--through a cold, cruel calculation untouched by compassion. There is a reason we need to view McVeigh this way, say scientists who study the human mind and the depths it can fall to. Doing so allows us to place him in a category labeled Evil with a capital E, but also, more importantly, one labeled not us. The enormity of McVeigh's act and the yawning hole in his soul where human compassion should lie, we need to assure ourselves, set him worlds apart from us.
But do they? In their search for the nature and roots of evil, scholars from fields as diverse as sociology, psychology, philosophy and theology are reaching a far more chilling conclusion. Most people do have the capacity for horrific evil, they say: the traits of temperament and character from which evil springs are as common as flies on carrion. "The capacity for evil is a human universal," says psychiatrist Robert I. Simon, director of the program in Psychiatry and Law at Georgetown University School of Medicine. "There is a continuum of evil, of course, ranging from 'trivial evils' like cutting someone off in traffic, to greater evils like acts of prejudice, to massive evils like those perpetrated by serial sexual killers. But within us all are the roots of evil." In the shadow of a century of unspeakable atrocities, from the 20 million killed in Stalin's purges and gulags to Hitler's extermination of 6 million Jews and the 1.7 million lives snuffed out on the killing fields of Pol Pot's Cambodia, researchers are seeking answers to a question as urgent as it is profound: if we all have the capacity for evil, why does it become a reality in only some?
Answering that requires that they first define evil. Last week, at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner of the New York University School of Medicine told an overflow audience that evil probably includes an intent to cause emotional trauma, to terrorize or target the helpless, to prolong suffering and to derive satisfaction from it all. That list suggests a key trait in many evildoers: they lack the capacity for empathy. They are unable to understand with the mind and feel with their gut the pain and terror of another human being. "They cannot see the self in the other," says Dr. Carl Bell, a psychiatrist at the University of Illinois. But while a failure of empathy may be a sufficient cause of evil, it is not a necessary one: sociopaths often know full well what their victims feel, and revel in it. To be truly evil seems to require a void where compassion should be: an evildoer like a serial sexual killer knows full well, but does not care a whit, what another feels.
Acts of unspeakable evil also seem to require a bent toward dehumanizing others. John Wayne Gacy called the 33 boys he raped, sodomized, tortured and killed "worthless little queers." Ted Bundy, with the blood of 24 women on his hands, called his victims "cargo" and "damaged goods." And no one could dehumanize his victims more than Jeffrey Dahmer; he ate his. When Hitler saw that the 900 Jews fleeing Germany in 1939 on the ship St. Louis had been turned back by Cuba, refused entry by every other country and had returned to the Third Reich, "he took that as a rationalization," says Dr. Carl Goldberg, a psychoanalyst at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. …