Daughter Maggie who also happens to be my editor suggested that she would like to see me write something about evil. I think this was precipitated by the recent beheading by one of those ISIS guys. She was interested in my thoughts as to whether there were people who were born evil or if it was an acquired condition, and did I think there was such a thing. Since this is a question which has been debated by the brightest minds on the planet for the past several thousand years, it seemed appropriate that I take a few minutes to answer it and settle the issue once and for all.
As you might expect, we shrinks see all kinds of people many of whom have done very bad things. Evil; however like many things in life is “in the eye of the beholder.” For this beholder, the actions of that person in the black suit and mask were about as evil as it gets. His compatriots, to the contrary, must have applauded this act as pleasing to God. Many see capital punishment as justice served, but I see the taking of a human life as legalized murder and therefore evil; however I could make an exception in the case of the ISSIS guy. If I had the power to take his life and did so, would that make me evil? On second thought, it may take a little longer than I thought to figure this out .
John Wayne Gacy and the Harlequin Complex
Many years ago I had briefly in my possession a painting which had been done by John Wayne Gacy while he was on death row. The subject was a skull with a clown face. For those too young to remember, Gacy was the person who had lured 33 boys to his home where he murdered and then buried them in a crawl space under his house. It appeared that his motivation for the murders was that he experienced orgasm while watching them die. Yes, this was a monster of the highest order. I was particularly interested in the case as I had been doing some research at the time about a possible relationship between attitudes toward death and psychopathology. Gacy had been very active as a clown who participated in community parades, etc. There was an extensive history of physical abuse by his father and bullying by his peers, but he had grown up to be active in local politics, community affairs, and had actually received awards for his contributions.
My interest in this case was that Gacy seemed to be an extreme example of what had been called the “harlequin complex.” The term was derived from an age-old myth about the Harlequin who came from the afterlife to seduce a maiden. The harlequin is frequently represented as a masked figure or as a clown. Briefly put, this is a type of psychopathology in which a person romanticizes death even to the point of equating it to a sexual experience. Actually, this attitude may exist to a lesser extent in the population at large as evidenced by phrases such as “flirting with death” and the Muslim promise of multiple virgins for martyrs. I coined the term “thanatophilic“ (death attractive ) for this condition and theorized that it might be a factor in some suicidal behaviors. I found what I thought was evidence for this disorder only in some women and homosexual males. Drawings of clowns were frequently produced in art therapy sessions on our inpatient unit. Gacy was bisexual, was diagnosed as a sociopath without remorse, and enjoyed acting out as a clown. My hypothesis was that these factors came together to form the “perfect storm” leading to the abhorrent and depraved acts of evil.
The History of Evil
In the final analysis all that I have presented so far are suppositions, which do not answer the question as to why any member of the human race could do such things to his brethren. I recall reading somewhere that humans are the only species who deliberately set out to kill their own. Yes, other species may fight over food, territory, or mates, but rarely do these fights result in death. Does this mean that evil exists only in humans? I find it interesting and at the same time disappointing that a public execution is thought to be an effective recruiting tool for this evil organization called ISIS. Are there that many blood thirsty people in our midst? Sadly, the answer must be yes, since throughout history despots have had little difficulty convincing ordinary people to participate in the worst kind of evil acts. When torture is needed there seems to be a plentiful supply of sadists available. It seems that evil is ubiquitous, for there appears to be areas on every continent where evil reigns supreme. There are reports of mass executions, rape, torture, subjugation and even slavery in this so called civilized world. Even this small quiet Midwestern town is not immune, for I have spent many hours listening to patients as they recount their experiences of abuse at the hands of those who had been charged with the duty to protect and nurture them. For too many of these victims, the damage is permanent.
Evil appears to have always accompanied mankind. The “ice man “frozen in a glacier in the alps for over four thousand years was x-rayed and found to have a flint arrowhead in his chest. Sadomasochistic tendencies have always seemed part of the human psyche. The coliseum attracted thousands to cheer gladiators’ battle to the death, and witness wild animals attack and kill people. It is theorized that they cheered the slaughter much like we cheer our football teams. During the French Revolution, huge crowds assembled daily to watch the guillotine perform its evil duties. Our own history records similar responses as our ancestors burned witches to the stake, and later lynchings were also said to be well attended. The tradition of this sick type of voyeurism persists today as we watch a so called sport in which the goal is to inflict a concussion on the opponent. It is now being superseded by a more violent form in which contestants fight in a cage in which anything goes. Are the spectators at these events different from those who watched similar events in the colliseum? I have always found it ironic that society found dog fighting or cock fighting abhorrent but endorsed boxing as a legitimate sport. I should have not been surprised; however for slavery was not only tolerated, but extolled by many as God’s will. Executions for capital crimes is not deemed as evil by society, but is called justice. Our capacity for rationalization appears to have no limits.
Evil and War
More subtle forms of evil are seen when con men inflict destructive but less visible types of pain on their unsuspecting victims. We often see examples of unscrupulous people using their positions of power in evil ways. Most of us, myself included, were shocked to learn that our government which we thought of as the least evil of all had engaged in “enhanced interrogation” which turned out to be a euphemism for torture. The most evil of all the activities devised by man; however must be war. It undoubtedly has caused the most suffering to the most people throughout history, and has apparently always been with us in one form or another. Archaeologists find evidence of wars going back to the Stone Age, some of which were even more brutal than modern conflicts. There are many Biblical accounts of wars. Even David, the legendary Jewish hero, allegedly favored by God was recorded as having slaughtered hundreds or more people after one conquest. He is said to have forced the entire population to lie down in a row and ordered his soldiers to kill every other person.
Evil and Religion
Of course, any discussion of the subject of evil would be woefully incomplete without including religion. In many ways I think religions have been unwittingly complicit in the promotion of evil. No, I am not referring only to the Elmer Gantrys or the false prophets such as Jim Jones or David Karesh who seem to show up in our society on a fairly regular basis, and who of course are grand champion evil doers. It is my opinion that the organized religions of the world have done a poor job in their “battle with the forces of evil,” and at times have actually been perpetrators of their own brands of evil. Obvious examples of course are the crusades, the inquisition, and the power mongering of early church leaders. There are also records of early missionaries to the Americas using torture and imprisonment to force indigenous peoples to adopt Christianity. The Isis occupiers now top that blasphemy by offering Christians the choice of conversion to Islam or death. Let us also not forget about the church which became a haven for pedophiles where priests who had pledged allegiance to their God and their flock did untold damage to children whose trust they violated. Even more egregious was the Vatican’s silence as the holocaust took place in their own backyard. History reports the practice of human sacrifice in some older religions which were done to appease their Gods. We must not leave out the antiabortion zealots who attempt to shame and humiliate troubled women. They frequently threaten Doctors who perform abortions and on one occasion murdered in the name of their God.
Now many followers of the Muslim religion have perverted the teachings of the Koran in order to justify doing evil things such as the extermination of all “non – believers.” And yes, I am sure they believe their cause is just. Since their cause is so righteous it frees them to use the all too familiar rationalization that “the end justifies the means” and thus perform the hideous act of decapitating an innocent young man in front of a camera. This evil act was violent and it has been said that violence begets violence. If it were in my power I would probably unleash a violent response and he would in turn label me evil, assuming he still had a head on his shoulders. Of course, I would use some mental gymnastics to justify my returning of evil with evil.
Was WWII an Act of Evil?
As previously mentioned, I believe that war is the most evil of all man’s activities. I am a child of World War II. My brother celebrated his eighteenth birthday in April, and found himself on the frontlines of Europe four months later. I recall my parent’s anguish as they listened to news every evening. I saw the blue stars displayed in most windows, often replaced by gold ones. Families lived in dread of the knock on their door by a Western Union messenger with the telegraph which began: “We regret to inform you…” Years later I would work as a consultant to the VA and have the honor of treating some of the veterans (or should I say victims) of that war and even some from the previous war, the one that was “the war to end all wars.” That pronouncement proved not to be prophetic. In WWI it was called Shell Shock, in WWII Battle Fatigue, and in this last one Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Whatever the name, it is sufficiently painful for many of these veterans that they end their lives to escape the torment that never ends. Add to that the brain injuries, amputated limbs, and the pain for families who lose their loved ones, the thousands of innocent civilians dead or maimed, and it is difficult for me to see war as anything but evil. In spite of its horrors, we continue to glorify our warriors as has been the case throughout history. Sargent York of WWI fame received the Congressional Medal of Honor for having killed nine Germans in one skirmish. It is true that war also brings out the best in many with incredible feats of valor and sacrifice for their comrades, but I doubt that a medic who saved nine lives that day would have been honored in the same way as was Sgt. York.
I seem to recall that someone once said that “evil begets evil.” If they didn’t say it they should have, for it is obviously true. For in the case of wars it is always the case that evil is fought with evil. For example in 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and many lives were lost. Subsequently the Japanese were known to have committed numerous atrocities. Most would agree that this behavior is evil. The United states responded by imprisoning all the people of Japanese descent whom they could find, even those who were citizens,. After a prolonged period of killing each other, we dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing thousands of civilians, and putting a generation of survivors at risk for the development of radiation caused illnesses. Our President insisted this saved thousands of lives since it ended the war abruptly. This sounded very much like the old conundrum of who do we throw out of the lifeboat.
The war with Germany proceeded in similar fashion. After conquering Europe, Germany initiated a campaign of indiscriminate bombing of England. The stated goal was to destroy morale and the will to fight. Actually it meant that this “civilized war” had regressed to tactics used by so called Barbarians hundreds of years before when it was considered good policy to kill your enemy’s entire population . With this strategy it was no longer necessary to seek military targets, for now it was also desirable to kill as many civilians as possible to destroy their will. America and Britain responded in kind and unleashed a furious program of bombing German cities on one occasion precipitating what would later be called a “fire storm” in which an all encompassing conflagration swept through the city of Dresden with such ferocity that it destroyed everything and everyone in its past. No one knows the death toll, but estimates vary from 35,000 to 150.000 mostly innocent souls.
The moral of these last two stories is that if one fights with evil you can safely put your money on evil for no matter the outcome evil wins.
Recent armed conflicts (politicians don’t like the term war) follow the same age old patterns. The evil of 9/11 was followed by the loss of several thousand lives and untold suffering in a war which we were told was necessary for our protection. The entire country cheered when the assassination of Osama Bin Laden was announced. Some archaeologists opine that throughout the ages wars have been fought in the pursuit of resources. We were assured however that this war had nothing to do with Iraq’s oil reserves.
Meanwhile Israel insists that Hamas is responsible for the death of hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children due to Israel’s recent response to Hamas rocket attacks. I suspect that is of little comfort to survivors of the bombings. Some world leaders criticized the Israelis for the attacks based upon a lack of proportionality! In other words, it was acceptable to kill some Palestinians just not that many. It reminded me in a perverse way of the Vietnam War when the day’s body counts were announced on the evening news. Our progress in the war seemed to be measured by how many Vietnamese were killed. The Israelis seem to find some justification in refusing to negotiate by labeling Hamas as terrorists while they honor the memory of Manachin Begin, one of their founding fathers, who had admitted plotting to blow up a hotel in London early in his career. Indeed there does seem to be credence to the statement that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
In recent years we have made much progress in solving some of the problems associated with war. Technological advances now allow us to kill much more efficiently oftentimes without soiling ourselves with their blood. The tools of war which allow us to kill from a great distance must make it easier when we don’t have to actually look our enemy in the eye as he dies. We know that drone operators living in Colorado can now go to work in the morning, drop a few bombs on the other side of the world, and be home in time for dinner. In their defense, it is said that some have difficulty dealing with the uncertainty of who they might have killed. I read that robots are now being developed which may someday replace human soldiers. I would applaud that effort if the robots would only engage other robots; however I suspect that society in its infinite wisdom will find ways as it always has to continue to kill each other.
Recap: Is there evil in world? Is it learned? Is it genetic?
Those of you who have endured reading this far might remember that I began with the promise to answer Maggie’s three questions. For those of you who like myself teeter on the edge of senility, they were: 1) Is there evil in the world, 2) Is it acquired , or 3) is it genetic? The answers are: yes, yes, and yes. If you have any interest in the subject you may be curious as to how I arrived at these conclusions. If so you are condemned to read the rest of this erudite essay.
As I immersed myself further into the topic it finally occurred to me to look up the definition of evil. Wikipedia defined it as the “absence of good.” This did not make sense to me for I am certain there were times in my life when neither good nor evil was in evidence. There have been times in my life when bad things happened, that could in no way be described as evil. I also rejected it because it is an example of what someone has called “binary thinking,” that is thinking in terms of opposites which tends to end in depth analysis and is not really defining. I counted 18 synonyms for evil in Webster’s dictionary and good was not listed as an antonym. The definition which best suited my purposes was “doing harm to others.” I liked this definition because it offered no excuses, rationalizations, or justifications. It obviates the need for debate, and it can be easily identified. If we accept this definition, there is no way we can deny the existence of evil for it surrounds and even engulfs us. We see it in our daily lives and on a larger scale throughout the world, a few examples of which I have noted in this paper. Much has been written about the struggle between good and evil. In my opinion both conditions stand alone. For example, during all wars there are heroic and compassionate acts performed, but to my knowledge they do nothing to stop the carnage. No matter the impetus for evil acts, the fuel which propels it is hatred. The only known antidote for hatred is forgiveness. As I pointed out previously the problem with the eye for an eye solution is that both sides end up without eyes, but although blind both feel righteous.
Is Evil learned or inherited? It depends on who is answering the question.
Question number two is more difficult. As a matter of fact, it is one that philosophers and theologians have debated throughout recorded history, and perhaps beyond. It is difficult for most of us to see evidence of evil in a newborn so since some will grow up to do evil things, they must have learned it somewhere along the way. Psychologists would identify the cause being due to life experiences. For example in Gacy’s case, the extreme verbal and physical abuse he suffered, and conflicts about his sexual orientation led to perverse and evil behavior. Sociologists would point to the alienation, poverty, bigotry, exploitation, and break down of family structure of many cultures as a root cause of much evil behavior. Witness the proliferation of street gangs whose members appear to be searching for a sense of belonging.
Historians describe a lust for power as an affliction which sometimes results in the making of despots. A physician friend of mine had the bad fortune to be called up to serve in Iraq, and was assigned to be the personal physician of Saddam Hussein. He was surprised to find Saddam to be congenial in spite of his imprisonment. He confessed to my friend that he had done some bad things, but that they were necessary in order to keep his country together. I think it is safe to assume that Hitler along with our current crop of evil rulers have used the same brand of logic to justify their evil doings. It is said that Hitler’s motivation came about due to his anger over Germany’s loss of world war I, so it seems logical to conclude that the most famously evil man of the twentieth century was not born evil but acquired these traits later in life.
Can ordinary people do acts of evil?
As I had previously mentioned the fact that Hitler and other tyrants have always been able to find apparently ordinary people to do evil by proxy has always perplexed me. However; I recently have been reminded of a study from many years ago in which people were paid to participate in a faked experiment in which they were asked to initiate an electrical shock to another person. The shock was not real but the recipient pretended to experience pain each time the button was pushed to administer the faked shot. The surprising and frightening result of the study was that over half of the subjects continued to push the button which they thought was administering shocks even after the make believe scientist had encouraged them to increase the strength of the shock to what the needle on the fake gauge registered as dangerous, and the alleged recipient of the shocks was screaming as if in agony. What is even more frightening about this study is that the subjects were not a bunch of brain washed , doped out Charles Manson followers, but ordinary people. Perhaps this may explain why soldiers accused of atrocities frequently respond:” I was just following orders” while others are wracked with guilt for engaging in acts which would have been unthinkable in any other circumstance. Could this mean that some people are programmed to be followers, and therefore more susceptible to control by those who would do evil? To the best of my knowledge, follow-up studies were not done, but it would have been helpful to know more about the personalities of the subjects. It might have been more important to learn about the resisters than the followers, as they might make us feel more hopeful.
Nature vs. Nurture
The distinction between acquired and inherited causes of evil becomes blurred as I ponder the question. For example in Gacy’s case I postulated that the abuse he suffered coupled with his homosexuality were factors; however many now feel that one’s sexual orientation is already established at birth. Consequently, we could postulate that his evil behavior was influenced by both acquired and genetic factors. Neurobiologists point out that although our brain has evolved to have a huge cerebral cortex which allows us to out think all other creatures, it sits atop a more primitive portion relatively unchanged from the brains of our ancestors. These centers are the seat of more primitive and instinctual emotions, and if unchecked can result in violent behaviors, thus everyone is born with the potential for violent behavior. In other words, in spite of our vaunted intellect and veneer of sophistication we are animals. Activation of the primitive portion of our brains requires some kind of stimulus. Therefore we could correctly posit that all of us are born with at least the potential to do harm to others.
For more than a century there has been an ongoing debate regarding nature versus nurture theories to explain human behavior and mental illnesses. Freudians focused on childhood experiences while others felt that brain function was relatively unaffected by such factors. In recent years there has been a burgeoning interest in genetics especially since the human genome was sequenced. Nowhere has there been more interest in these developments than in the field of Psychiatry, for it has long been noted that certain mental illnesses seemed to be more common in some families than others; although a direct correlation could not be established. Now the links are being identified, although in most cases it has been found that the modes of inheritance are quite complex, involving multiple genes. It has been noted that genetic mutations are much more common than previously thought, and may even be modified by life experiences. This is a monumental discovery and solves the controversy since it appears biological and environmental factors are interconnected. Technology helps us understand brain function, as we now are now able to actually watch a brain function via the PET scan. Neuro-endocrinologists learn more each day about the various neurotransmitters which allow the billions of brain cells to communicate with each other.
You may be wondering what all this has to do with my subject. It is relevant because we need to know more about how evil people think or if their thought processes are different. In my youth during the time BTV (that ancient time before television) I listened weekly to a favorite radio mystery entitled “The Shadow”. It was about a super hero who was able to make himself invisible. It always began with a conspiratorial voice which announced “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of man , the shadow knows.” I have often thought we could use a guy like that to help us sort out the bad guys. People who do evil things without remorse even enjoying hurting others have been called sociopaths or psychopaths. These people appear to lack any semblance of a super ego. Many have a history of being abused in childhood, but others show signs of sociopathy early in their lives suggesting that there may be in some cases a genetic component. Conventional wisdom has always been that in such cases if these kids cannot be turned around by their late teens they will be at great risk to do evil things throughout their lives. These people are not all criminals, rapists, or con artists, etc. A close look will find elements of sociopathy in all strata of life and occupations. Stereotypes don’t always fit as I once saw a used car salesman who was on the verge of bankruptcy because he was so conscientious that he repaired his customer’s cars long after any warranty expired. He might sell a car for less than he had paid for it if he felt sorry for a customer.
Of course most people even those who have done bad things to others are not sociopaths. Many good people do things they later regret and do feel remorse while others feel justified often rationalizing their behavior. Many common human feelings such as: anger, envy, ambition, fear, suspiciousness, and jealousy, to name a few may trigger an impulse to do harm to others. Hans Selye many years ago explained how certain stressors could initiate what he called the “flight or fight “ reaction by causing the body to produce increased levels of corticotropic hormones which could result in unpredictable behaviors. Anabolic steroids have been known to cause so called “roid rage”, and other drugs including alcohol may also contribute to violent behavior. These and many other circumstances may be factors affecting people in such a way that they feel compelled to harm others.
All the foregoing facts would seem to confirm that we are all at risk of becoming either victims or perpetrators of evil or both. I wonder about the famously evil people of recent and remote history, those who were responsible for the most evil. Were they qualitatively different from the rest of us, or was it just a matter of the degree of evil? As previously mentioned, I have seen and known many who have done great harm to others thereby satisfying the criteria for my definition of evil; however I cannot recall meeting anyone who I thought was totally evil. Granted my perception may be skewed since my job has been to look for the good in my patients and try to help that part of them to grow. There were times also when my own negative feelings toward a particular transgression (Pedophilia for example) would cause me to refer the patient to someone more tolerant.
Why does evil exist?
What I have said so far may not be at all a satisfactory answer to Maggie’s question concerning the existence of evil for I suspect she was referring to evil in a more spiritual sense. Science attempts to answer the question how, but why is the province of theologians. All during the time man has been present on this planet he has been the victim of all kinds of cataclysmic events such as: tornados, earthquakes, volcanoes, drought, disease, starvation, and pestilence to name a few. Since these catastrophes were beyond his ability to understand their causes, it is not surprising that he would look to unseen forces to explain them. Thus the idea of evil being the product of demonic sources would be the only logical conclusion, and remember that this large brain of his had developed the power to use logic. Some societies attempted to appease the demons, and others prayed for a loving God to defeat evil, or the devil as he would come to be called. Some cultures even used human sacrifice to appease their demons
There has been little change in this regard since the Stone Age. As Christians, we view Jesus as having sacrificed his life to protect us. We continue to pray to a “just” God to protect us from evil, and to provide us with a bucolic existence following our death. We are instructed to resist satanic forces which are ever present. Many will ask: if God is all powerful, why doesn’t he destroy Satan, and why did he allow him to corrupt Eve there in the garden, get this evil thing started, and allow it to get completely out of control? Was he asleep at the switch? Was it a test to see how his creations would fair against his worst enemy? If it were the latter, we have obviously failed miserably. Of course these humans had evolved and developed the tools to allow them to survive and eventually dominate all other creatures. Apparently, that was not enough for they then set out to dominate each other, and then begin the destruction of that beautiful garden from which they originated. There were of course other explanations for all of this by other religions, all of whom were attempting to deal with that awareness of their mortality which had resulted from the development of those massive cerebral hemispheres. Most defined their experiences as supernatural phenomena.
Some of you may remember Flip Wilson’s comedy show in the seventies. One of the characters he played was Geraldine who when confronted would respond “the devil made me do it.” It has occurred to me that some of us may be like Geraldine, and use Satan as an excuse for our wayward behaviors. It has always been difficult for me to accept as reality anything that I couldn’t see, hear, touch, taste or smell which has left me a doubter in all things spiritual. I do realize that our ability to perceive is constrained by the limits of our special senses, and do not deny that there are dimensions of life that are beyond my understanding. I readily accept the possibility that there are spiritual influences in our lives, but fail to see evidence of their presence. For all I know Satan may be responsible for my spiritual blindness. Though I don’t pretend to be a biblical scholar, in my opinion the scriptures were not all meant to be literally interpreted. In my limited reading of the Bible, I note that Jesus made liberal use of metaphors and allegories in his teachings. This suggests to me that he wished us to think about and interpret his stories.
Is there a weapon that will defeat evil?
The genius of Jesus was in his plan to eliminate evil. Whether believer, doubter or atheist all should agree that if his two fundamental admonitions “turn the other cheek and treat others as you would like to be treated” if followed, would stop us from fighting evil with evil. He rejected the old eye for an eye philosophy which had been responsible for thousands of years of suffering. He also proposed we fight evil with love not just good deeds. Imagine what this world would be like if mankind had followed those teachings. There would be no wars, thievery, murders, assaults, or shady business dealings. Dishonesty in all its forms would be eliminated. No one would suffer the pain of ridicule, rejection, denigration, or abuse of any kind. Psychiatrists would no longer be needed.
He must have known about this potential for evil that resides in all of us and offered us the tools to suppress it, no matter its origins. He also promised redemption when we lapsed as he must have known we would occasionally do. The world which he offered us sounds more like heaven than this earth to which we are bound. Through the ages there have been individuals and groups who have worked at following the teachings of Jesus with limited success. Some notable exceptions in recent times have been Martin Luther King, and Desmond Tutu: King, with his non-violent protests, and Tutu whose program of reconciliation helped prevent a counter revolution following the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa. Gandhi, although not a Christian, used the same principles in freeing India from British rule. Nevertheless, in all these cases the refusal to fight evil with evil was paramount.
Although many Christian denominations talk the talk about these teachings only a few seem to walk the walk by featuring non-violence as the most important of their preachings. The Quakers come to mind and I am also told that the Amish and Menonite sects deplore any kind of violence even in self-defense. They refuse to participate in wars for example. Unfortunately, for the Jesus strategy to be successful there must be one hundred percent participation. Since this is unlikely to happen, I suspect evil will likely be with us forever.
Granted there is much that is good which allows us to find happiness in the face of evil, but only love will defeat it.