Since my previous attempt to find a way deeper in to the enigma of human evil crashed and burned, I thought I’d try and find a new place from which to begin. To that end, I spent a good deal of time yesterday perusing YouTube, specifically documentaries about serial killers. That isn’t very cheery stuff, I know, and on top of other things happening yesterday, it was emotionally draining.
It was also necessary. This part of my spiritual journey, traveling the roads and byways that most people avoid, will not be easy. I am terrified of what I know is out there in that darkness. At the same time, my question continues to be is evil a force outside human life, or just the product of human actions moving according to the dictates of minds broken in one way or another. I have a preference, of course. The demands of justice and responsibility push me to insist that the extremes of human depravity, violence, and murderous rage rest solely with the individual. Even in the most extreme cases, where there are mitigating factors from abuse and neglect to diagnosable mental illness, the source of it all lies not outside the person, but inside. Recognizing that things like violence abuse, psychosis, and psychopathology restrict the ability of individuals to make proper moral choices, it does not, in my opinion, remove responsibility for deplorable acts of violence.
One of the things I learned as I perused various stories was the prevalence of adjectives such as “Deranged” (Richard Speck), Evil (Jason Eric Massey), The Devil (Michael Blagg). In each case, however, the epithets just don’t line up, or are beside the point.
Obviously Richard Speck, who managed to kill seven student nurses in a single horrible night of rage, was mentally ill in some way. The word “deranged”, however, just isn’t very precise at all to describe who Speck was. While I do have some sympathy for him due to the circumstances of his childhood. His actions on the one horrible night in Chicago, and his subsequent inability to have any remorse about the murders, however, leave me having little room for sympathy for him. All the same, “deranged” just doesn’t cut it as a descriptor.
Then there’s Jason Eric Massey. The killer of James King and Christina Benjamin certainly showed himself to have little regard for the lives of others. His callous, violent acts, perpetrated without any emotion at all except the excitement that comes from killing, demonstrated a lack of feeling that is a symptom of psychopathology. From his childhood, however, Massey showed several typical signs that he was a budding psychopath. Most notable was his violence toward animals. At one point, officials found a freezer chest filled with the skulls of animals. After torturing and killing the animals, Massey would decapitate them, keeping the heads as trophies. He also decapitated Christina Benjamin, as well as removing her hands to make identifying her remains more difficult. The poor girl’s head was never found, as Massey had dumped it in a nearby river rather than kept it.
Finally there’s Michael Blagg, who killed his wife and young daughter over a threatened marital split that would expose a pornography addiction. Rather than have his name sullied in that way, he killed his family and put their bodies in the dumpster at his workplace, then faked an anguished 911 call, confident he had left little for police to tie him to the murders. This was a simple crime of desperation. While Blagg certainly demonstrated both callousness as well as a kind of despicable cleverness, I would hardly call him “the Devil”.
How we talk about people and events is important. How we, individually and collectively, name things is of utmost importance. Words like “evil” and “the devil”, being both extreme and specific in their denotations and connotations should be used with care. A murder is evil, whether it’s a scared kid who gets trigger happy because he’s scared or it’s committed by a serial killer. The devil is a person of myth and legend, with specific characteristics; attaching it to a person should be done with care. Words that are less precise like “deranged” should be avoided; they do little to help us understand the persons to whom it’s attached.
For a while last evening, I felt frustrated. All that time subjecting myself to the details of horrific crimes, the realities of people with a variety of problems, not the least of them being a simple inability to recognize other people as fellow human beings, as creatures of worth in need of care, and I thought I was no further along than I had been. Then, I realized that wasn’t true at all.
These are acts of terrific violence, destroying the lives not only of the victims, but the victims’ families and friends as well. Their own families’, too, suffer from the realization their loved one is capable of extremes of violence. Ascribing the word “evil” to their actions is easy; it is also banal, explaining nothing, and usually done to separate these acts from anything we believe ourselves capable of doing. It is an act of self-protection rather than moral assignment.
Furthermore, despite the best science has to offer – one documentary considered the three main ingredients in creating a serial killer: brain damage, mental illness, abuse – no one who is in a position to understand is any closer to providing diagnostic lists for serial killers than before. Even the CT scans, PET scans, and MRI’s show that there just aren’t any definitive distinctions in the brain structure or chemistry comparing the brains of people who are not murderers and those who are. Finally, some of the most violent and prolific serial killers showed no signs of at least two if not all three of the things one expert insisted were the ingredients to creating a serial killer. Ted Bundy, for example, while suffering emotional scarring from extreme family dysfunction; being teased and bullies as a child and teen, but hardly abused; and who served both effectively and well in a college emergency hotline did not demonstrate any early signs that he would kill dozens, if not more, young women throughout the 1970’s.
Does that mean that Bundy was “evil”? Ascribing moral viciousness to an individual rather than to acts committed by an individual is extreme. Particularly when it is necessary to be clear that we have eliminated other, alternative explanations. In Bundy’s case, for example, there was evidence that psychopathy was there from an early age. His murderous rage, however, was triggered by his rejection by a woman he considered his “dream girl”. His budding sense of superiority, affronted by this woman he really did love, flowered. The measure of his psychopathic view of his omnipotence continued after his final arrest in Florida, where he chose to represent himself (he had been a law school student, but dropped out), and managed to lose his one and only case as a lawyer. A few days before his execution, he yet again showed his willingness to lie, to perform for an audience, and give people what they wanted. He sat down for an interview with James Dobson, a conservative religious media critic. Here, Bundy placed the blame for his violence, hatred, and murderous rage on pornography. Dobson sat there and gobbled it all up, not once being skeptical of anything Bundy was saying.
What I learned from this is that a good place to start this spiritual journey is to be clear about what evil is not. While the word may certainly be used to describe particular actions such as mass murder, rage-filled serial killing, and even politically-motivated mass murder from the elimination of the Native Americans through the various genocides of the 20th century even up to our willingness to accept the constant threat of nuclear annihilation as substitute for real military protection. These acts, however, are not the result of evil residing within any particular individuals. We do not have to do with evil people or governments. Since mundane explanations work better than any radical moral or theological explanation, Occam’s Razor certainly suggests we accept the explanation that is most simple.
This actually makes me feel better, like I’ve taken a step forward from where I’ve been for so long. Evil, if it is to be understood as an external spiritual reality, must be something far more than the typical, all too human, events to which we usually assign the word.
Which also frightens me more than I wish to admit.