25 July 2011

Evil? Or Broken?

What, exactly, is an evil person?  A Philosopher's Talk segment on NPR equated evil with lack of empathy. Most people attach the word "evil" to someone who does something they consider terrible: the Holocaust, 9/11, the Killing Fields of Cambodia. It could be used by someone angry that another person poisoned his barking dog. I've heard the word attached to someone who was an inveterate punster.

But make no mistake - there is real evil out there. At least two different kinds.

In the King James Bible there are two words for taking life: slay and kill. In 21st Century English these words have mapped to different meanings: kill and murder. In both cases, the former is state-sanctioned: what a soldier does in battle, or a butcher does to feed his family. In both cases the latter meaning (the 1604 meaning of kill, or 2011 meaning of murder) is morally reprehensible. (That's short for "bad.") So when the King James Bible says "Thou Shalt Not Kill" - it means you must not murder. This distinction was important during the reign of James I, and for some people it remains important today.

Martha Stout's book "The Sociopath Next Door" posits that about 1 in 25 people around you is born without the capacity to love or empathize. As she puts it: what do the con man, the impostor, and the serial killer have in common?  They are all missing something essential: a conscience.

I would put it this way: there is a tiny fraction of the human population with an imperfect - or missing - moral spine.

I believe I've encountered a few individuals in my life experience who might qualify. In each case they had a crippled idea of a life philosophy, and had a deep devotion to Number One: themselves. They tortured others - both animals and humans.  There is a degree to everything, and in one case the individual was profoundly unhappy - an extremely intelligent atheist who knew he was different, knew he had no real hope except to climb an academic ladder - and was deeply frustrated.  There are some individuals at the extreme end of this spectrum who apparently never had any particular sense of unhappiness - John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer come to mind. Killing for them was just a business - a way to satisfy a need.

The difference between most sociopaths and a serial killer may simply be narcissism. The former retain a concern for what people think of them, and it holds them in check, more or less. Historically, these broken individuals have tended not to propagate their genes unless they had this additional trait. Unless they somehow became a leader of men (I'm thinking about Genghis Khan and Josef Stalin here). Fear of execution held some of these crippled individuals in check up until the mid-20th Century. Most simpler societies, which have not had the luxury of lawyers and elaborate jails, dealt with this sort of person quickly and permanently: slay/kill them.

Ever hear of Tollund Man? A 5,000-yr-old mummified corpse found in 1950 in a Danish bog... with a rope around his neck. There was initial speculation that he was a human sacrifice... but he was more likely a murderer or pedophile, dealt with quickly and efficiently by a local community where he was captured (a second autopsy verified that he had been hanged).

So. Are serial killers, pedophiles, and Islamic Khotila* evil? Or do they just have a broken wire in their brains somewhere? There is a rather high correlation between children that torture animals and sociopaths, just as there is a high correlation between mathematicians and musicians. Another way of looking at this is: we are all built differently, and some are born missing the empathy socket.

But there are also apparently normal people who commit murder. They were sent over the edge by something - infidelity, an attack on their children, something that brought them to a point where they were - at least temporarily - able to kill another human being. The courts even distinguish between "Aggravated Murder", "Murder", and Second Degree Murder. The latter is judged to be not quite as bad as premeditated murder. All too often I see on TV or in the newspaper a story of a spurned husband (it almost never seems to be the wife) who kills his estranged wife and perhaps their children - and then kills himself. Neighbors, fellow church-goers all seem surprised by this: he seemed like such a nice man and such a good father...

Can good people turn bad? Clearly, yes. Do we all have weaknesses - various broken wires in our brains - that can be taken advantage of? I think that, too, is a very real likelihood. I'll bet anyone reading this can think of at least one example. From terrifying personal experience, I am certain that there is an Adversary out there.

That's where the "2nd Degree Murder" comes from, where people get tipped over the edge. It's somehow less "bad" - emotions overcame him. The implication is that his violent act is not typical, doesn't mean he will do it again. Right.

What can you - or society for that matter - do about people who go over the edge?

Not much - it usually happens too fast.

What can society (or you) do about a sociopath bent on killing an estranged wife?

Again not much. Avoidance isn't always possible. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled on a teacher asking to carry a pistol into her elementary school classroom: she had an estranged husband who had repeatedly stalked her, threatened to kill her, and had already violated a court restraining order. How would you decide this one?

We are told clearly that Charity is the greatest of all characteristics required of us by God. We can be charitable, try to understand, and when possible perhaps even try to help. Being charitable does NOT mean that we have to give free rein to the agency of the evil person - the Title of Liberty comes to mind. This sort of evil is what courts are designed to deal with - to quantify, evaluate, assess, and if possible to correct. If correction is not possible, then quarantine. We do this for viruses, both organic and digital - we isolate these dangerous things until they are no longer dangerous.

Finally, I believe we have the luxury in our modern society to do no more than this - no more than to quarantine. From a practical standpoint (court-time and lawyer's fees), capital punishment is far more expensive than life imprisonment. More importantly, I think a follower of Christ must step beyond the Mosaic Law and forgo societally-sanctioned executions. Because execution, whether by hanging (Tollund), gas chamber, or lethal injection - is still killing another human being.

Kill, slay, or murder - it doesn't matter what you call it, another human being still dies. We don't have to hold the cloaks of the executioners.


* An Afghani Islamic militant group hanged an 8-year-old boy they kidnapped, because his policeman father would not surrender a police vehicle (news reports on 24 July 2011). There are several Salafist organizations that openly sanction murders of innocent men, women, and children simply because they are Christian or Shi'a. To call these Islamists "Jihadis" is to compliment him. Jihad means to fight evil, and the Qu'ran makes it pretty clear that this means to root out evil in your own soul. 

Instead, I much prefer the words "Khotila" (قاتل) - murderer - or Jazari (جزار) - butcher.


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