Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Where Evil Lurks

The banality of evil, personified.

Visiting She Falters To Rise I encountered a recent post of hers regarding the BTK killer, Dennis Rader. This guy was the picture of normalcy, though he did have a few quirks, such as his obsessive behavior with regard to executing his job as a "code compliance officer." He was the one that came around to make sure your lawn was cut to spec, that your dog is tied up, anything to do with local "code" that tells you how you should or shouldn't do things. In many places a "code compliance officer" is otherwise referred to as a pain-in-the-buttocks, and it does indeed take a special personality to be really good at this sort of thing (that's not to say all that perform this function are serial killers, but I think most of us get the general idea.) The Times ran Kansas Suspect Pleads Guilty in 10 Murders yestday and here are some excerpts from that piece:

"The former Boy Scout troop leader, married father of two and regular churchgoer pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first degree murder. The killings took
place when Kansas was without a death penalty, so prosecutors cannot seek to
execute Mr. Rader on these cases, but he will almost certainly spend the rest of
his life in prison ..."

"One of Mr. Rader's public defenders said afterward that Mr. Rader's legal team had decided that the case "was not a viable insanity defense." ..."

"Mr. Rader, balding with gray sprinkled in his beard, wore a cream colored sports coat, and a white shirt and dark tie. During his court appearance, he did not appear to be nervous and expressed no remorse as he dispassionately explained how he stalked his victims, and bound and tortured them, before he shot, stabbed, strangled or choked them to death. He went into graphic detail during his testimony and often called his victims by name. Most, he said, were chosen at random."

This man knew right from wrong, but that didn't matter. He had strong sexual fantasies which some aspect of his character didn't allow or help him suppress or otherwise didn't compel him to find help to deal with horrible fantasies --- he likely felt therapy was for sissies or something along that line --- and consequently he went out and killed. But it was more than just the fantasies, he relished the limelight that came with the killing, he savored the news coverage, in fact ultimately it seems that this is what did Rader in as his taunts to local papers asking why they were no longer paying attention to BTK were what allowed law-enforcement to finally get a track on him. This guy compartmentalized his existence, cutting himself up at least three different ways, leading the life of a law-abiding, in fact on some minor level a law "enforcing" citizen on the one hand, a homicidal thrill freak with sexual overlays in another, and then on top of the killer he was some freaky voyeur who got off on what he did when he was being a bad boy. This was a man who saw himself as so pathetic that his existence had meaning only when he had control, and this came at the cost of the lives of ten people --- but yet looking at him no one would have guessed, in fact no one did.

The whole thing reminded me of a book I read some years ago, Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception, By Emmanuel Carrere. It tells the true story of a man who went on to
convince family and friends that he had finished medical school, that he was employed by the World Health Organization in Geneva, that he was an investor making extraordinary returns on the money he managed and in turn convinced family and friends to put money in with him which he then used to support his lifestyle and family, and then finally, after 18 years of this, when it all began to unravel, he killed his family (wife and two kids) in an effort to hide what he had done. You'd think the whole thing was impossible, but sure enough it happened. Again, the banality of evil, a man who lived off of his ability to make people believe he was something he wasn't and this would have gone on forever had the house of cards not tumbled down --- but then he's exposed and what does he do? He kills his family and fakes his nearly being killed himself, and it turns out that he killed relatives initially taken in by him who were gradually figuring out what he was up to. Being a con man is one thing, even when you take it to the extreme of playing the con on your own family, but then to resort to murder of those the people you ostensibly love, the only ones who in the end that should have mattered to him, spotlights an extraordinary evil.

Well, one more reminder for me, something attributed to the anthropologist Catherine Baetson, which on some level certainly does apply here, but which is a good reminder for all of us in all aspects of our lives:

"We live with strangers. Those we love most, with whom we share a shelter, a table, a bed, remain mysterious. Wherever lives overlap and flow together, there are depths of unknowing. Parents and children, partners, siblings, and friends repeatedly surprise us, revealing the need to learn where we are most at home. We even surprise ourselves in our own becoming, moving through the cycles of our lives. There is strangeness hidden in the familiar.

"At the same time there is familiarity hidden in the strange. We can look with
curiosity and respect at the faces of men and women we have never met. Learning
to recognize these strangers with whom we share an increasingly crowded and
interdependent world, we can imagine ourselves joined in a single family, perhaps by a marriage between adventurous grandchildren.

"Strangers marry strangers, whether they have been playmates for years or never
meet before the wedding day. They continue to surprise each other through the
evolutions of love and the growth of affection. Lovers, gay and straight, begin in strangeness and often, for the zest of it, find ways to increase their differences.

"Children arrive like aliens from outer space, their needs and feelings inaccessible, sharing no common language, yet for all their strangeness we greet
them with love. Traditionally, the strangeness of infants has been understood as
temporary, the strangeness of incomplete beings who are expected to become
predictable and comprehensible. This expectation has eased the transition from
generation to generation, the passing on of knowledge and responsibility, on
which every human society depends. Yet the gap between parent and child, like
the gap between partners, is not left behind with the passage of time. Today, in
a world of rapid change, it is increasing, shifting into new rhythms still to be
explored."

4 Comments:

Blogger she falters to rise said...

Thanks for the cross reference. I just can't stop thinking about all of this.

6:46 PM  
Blogger James said...

It is one of those things that, once you start thinking about it, can become something of a fixation as you try to understand "Why?"

8:50 PM  
Blogger she falters to rise said...

Actually, the sick, distorted half of me wonders why there aren't more sociopaths, especially in this egocentric culture that we're growing here in our fields.

I remember learning in my evolution course that there are very few altruistic animal species. What creatures do and why they do it seems to be for selfish reasons more often than not. What keeps us "good"? What is "good"? What is "evil"? Why do some of us care when strangers die while others don't blink twice? Is it because we are sad for that person and their family, or is it because the death spurs the fear that we may suffer the same fate? What is the line that sociopaths cross, and why do they cross it while we do not?

It's all so very complicated.

8:14 AM  
Blogger James said...

Wow ... you're hitting on some very interesting aspects of this that have been things I've thought about for a long time.

The first book in the "Hannibal Lecter" series was originally called "Red Dragon" by Thomas Harris (who, of course, went on to write "Silence of the Lambs"). "Red Dragon" fascinated me not because of the bad guy, derisively referred to as the Tooth Fairy, who was an abused, malformed human being who many would argue was the way he was because of his earlier life --- of course that still leaves us with all of hte abused/scarred people who didn't go on to become serial killers with a particular fetish in their killing. Anyway, the real interesting character was the FBI agent, Will (I can't recall his last name.)

The book and the original movie (with William Peterson, not Edward Norton who played the character in the updated version of the book) by the name "Red Dragon" conveyed the complexity of this person. He was a freak, he was a good guy who was able to get into the heads of the killers he pursued, that's how he managed to catch Hannibal Lecter. He was able to keep that part of him that understood the thrill of the killer, could on some level feel what the killer did and understand the killer's excitement and drive for what he was doing, in check while being a good guy. That fascinated me, a person who could be in touch with this evil side, and yet still be good. Lecter makes a comment to Will at one point that sums it up, he tells Will "You're just like us."

Animals can't be evil, at least not as I understand it. Humans seem uniquely situated to indulge this. Humans seem uniquely qualified to indulge evil, in the most horrific of ways. Some are sick, like the Tooth Fairy, they're made the way they are. Some are like Hannibal Lecter, who for no apparent reason decides to kill people for his pleasure.

You're right, it's so complicated, and trying to understand it, to make some sense of it, is so hard. But it's also fascinating for I believe that all of us have within us this thing that under the right circumstances can allow evil to take over. Not all of us would succumb to it --- for reasons that are varied and equally complicated there's a switch that engages that stops us from stepping over that line, we'd sooner kill ourselves than go over to the dark side. But then there are many of us who ... well, you get the idea.

Complicated and fascinating, no doubt.

9:51 AM  

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