The Roots of Evil

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. "'See, the world doesn't care about these people. We can do with them whatever we like'." McVeigh, of course, called the babies and toddlers he killed "collateral damage."

It is normal and--as evolutionary biologists say--adaptive to be self-centered. It keeps us alive. But if there is a single trait that allows lack of empathy and compassion to rot into pure evil, argue many psychiatrists, it is the extreme form of self-centeredness called narcissism. "Narcissism is the huge multiplier," says Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a neuropsychiatrist at UCLA. "The grandiosity that McVeigh exhibited--that by his act he would bring down the government--shows how badly the hero ethos can go wrong when it is not grounded in a strict moral code. Narcissism is what allows you to get evil acts from seemingly ordinary people." Grandiosity also allows a person to play god, deciding whose lives are dispensable in the service of which goals.

"A man's character is his fate," wrote Heraclitus more than 2,000 years ago. It is here, in men's characters, that scholars seek the distinctive traits that turn the potential for evil into its actuality. Goldberg, who has studied killers and sociopaths, argues that the seeds of evil are sown early in life. If a child suffers extreme neglect or cruelty, especially from a trusted friend or beloved relative, the result is often shame and humiliation: "I was not worthy of love from those I love most." Those feelings, if not countered by compassion from others in the child's world, can grow into a self-contempt so profound that the only way to survive is to "become indifferent to other people, too," says Goldberg. "'I may not be worthy, but neither is anyone else'." Someone who hates himself projects that hatred onto his victims. He "puts his hated self in the shoes of the victim, then tortures and kills that person," Simon explains.

Studies of sociopaths indeed find that many experienced horrific abuse during childhood, which is a good start toward fostering self-hatred. But abuse also seems to leave a physical trace on the developing brain, assaulting it with a constant barrage of stress hormones. The result is that the child becomes inured to stress and, indeed, to most feeling. Emotionally, he flat-lines. He can no longer perceive another human being's distress; he cannot feel what another is feeling. One of the most consistent findings about the biology of violence is that sadists and coldblooded killers show virtually no response to stress--no racing heart, no sweating, no adrenaline rush.

But just as evil can spring from a failing of the heart, so, too, can it grow from the head. "You can have people who have a well-developed capacity for empathy, relating, who are very close to their friends, but who have been raised in an ideology that teaches them that people of another religion, color or ethnic group are bad," says psychologist Bruce Perry of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston. "They will act in a way that is essentially evil based upon cognition rather than emotion." But the heart and the head interact. People who grew up amid violence and cruelty are more susceptible to ideologies that dehumanize the other in favor of the self.

Mob evil--the genocidal atrocities in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans--requires something more. In such horrors, the participants were what psychologists call "righteous conformists," convinced of the justice of their cause and content to go along with the crowd. In 1974, in a classic test of the power of conformity to lead us into evil, psychologist Stanley Milgram seated volunteers before a panel of (fake) electrical switches. They were connected, Milgram said, to someone (actually a Milgram colleague) on whom the volunteer would test the effects of electric shock on learning. Every time the learner got an answer wrong, Milgram told the volunteer he was to throw a more powerful switch. When the volunteers were seated alone, more than half administered the maximum (and potentially fatal) 450-volt shocks--even as their victims screamed in mock agony. Then Milgram seated the volunteers between two others (again, associates of his). If these two showed no qualms about torturing the learners, a full 92 percent of the volunteers administered potentially lethal jolts. They went along. They obeyed orders.

Given this capacity for evil, perhaps we should not be surprised that many individual acts of cruelty and even depravity are perpetrated by men and women who appear, on the outside, perfectly ordinary. Gacy worked as a building contractor, participated in community projects and volunteered at the hospital to cheer up sick children. Bundy's friends found him so poised and personable they thought he would run for political office. "I spent 18 years working with people who everyone would call evil--child molesters, murderers--and with a few exceptions I was always struck by their ordinariness," says psychologist Michael Flynn of York College in New York.

History's collective acts of great evil required the complicity of men and women who showed up at work, processed the papers that sent people to the crematoriums or the gulag, even participated directly in ethnic cleansing and gang rape--and who in their spare time played with their children and had a soft spot for animals. Most of those who carried out the Holocaust were ordinary Germans "who rationalized the atrocities that they were committing" by viewing Jewish lives as worthless, argued Simon in the fall 2000 issue of Phi Kappa Phi Journal. "The unmistakable lesson is that ordinary, 'good' people, devoted to their families, their religion and their country, are capable of inflicting horrific harm on those whom they dehumanize and demonize." As Hannah Arendt noted, it is the banality of evil that is so horrific.

The greatest failing of explanations that single out particular experiences or character traits as feeding the wellsprings of evil is that thousands, if not millions, of people have had those same experiences or share those traits. The genesis of Hitler's evil, for instance, is variously ascribed to sexual inadequacy, maternal smothering, paternal violence and narcissistic borderline personality disorder. But those factors describe many people; there has been only one Hitler. That failing suggests to many scientists that we will not find answers to evil in the generalities--childhood abuse, lack of empathy, media violence, an innate bent toward violence. We must instead seek explanations in the particulars: how and by whom and for how long a child was abused; his state of mind when he played a violent videogame; the quotidien interactions with parents that convey a moral code or fail to. Why doesn't everyone who plays violent videogames or gets bullied or abused commit acts of evil? Because each life experience affects an individual according to his innate psychological makeup.

For now, we just aren't smart enough to know how those interactions work. But hatred, violence and ideology exert powerful effects on weak minds. Ron Rosenbaum, author of "Explaining Hitler," suspects the catalyst for Nazi evil may have been the virulently anti-Semitic pamphlets written by auto chief Henry Ford, circulated in Germany in the 1920s. Hitler cribbed much of "Mein Kampf" from Ford's "The International Jew." "The role of hate literature and evil ideology on a vulnerable mind has been underestimated," says Rosenbaum. McVeigh, of course, pored over "The Tur-ner Diaries," a neo-Nazi call to arms in which the "hero" blows up the FBI headquarters with a truck bomb.

Advances in neuroscience have turned up hints of something like the mark of Cain in some minds. Psychiatrist Daniel Amen has studied, through the imaging technique called SPECT, the living brains of 50 murderers and 200 other violent felons. Without exception, all show reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex (seat of judgment, planning and thoughtfulness), overactivity in the anterior cingulate gyrus (the brain's gearshift, which allows it to segue from one thought to another) and abnormalities in the left temporal lobe (involved in mood and temper control). "If you have a left-temporal-lobe problem, you have dark, awful, violent thoughts," says Amen. "If you have a cingulate-gyrus problem as well, you get stuck on the bad thoughts. And if you have a prefrontal-cortex problem, you can't supervise the bad thoughts you get stuck on." One caveat about such findings: they say nothing about the genesis of the brain abnormalities. Yes, the abnormalities may be causative. But they may also be the re-sult of outside factors that turn the capacity for evil into reality--the self-loathing, lack of compassion, narcissism.

Socrates asserted that no one can know good and yet choose evil; if one knows good and yet commits an act that society calls evil, then that person mistook an evil act for a good one. "In their choice of good and evil," Socrates said, "[we suffer] from a defect of knowledge." Only Satan, in whose mouth Milton put the words "Evil be now my good," knows the good, yet consciously chooses evil. Socrates may or may not have been right about adults, but he nailed the explanation for evil committed by children: without intending to trivialize the enormity of their acts, one must conclude that in many cases they literally didn't know any better. Even in normal teenagers, a brain that remains a work in progress means that moral development may lag, just as the capacity for reasoning, planning and prioritizing does. Both moral judgment (the ability to figure out which actions are morally justified) and moral motivation (putting the rights and needs of others above one's own) often elude children. But the moral stage of an Eric Harris or Lionel Tate need not have been permanent. It was their tragedy, and ours, that they got their hands on guns before their sense of morality matured. Kids who kill seem most deserving of an asterisk: the deed was evil, the doer perhaps not.

Adults generally have no such out. But they, too, can be lured into evil by the same acute sense of aggrievement, and the firm conviction that they are right- ing a grave wrong, that turns schoolyard victims of bullying into killers. McVeigh believed he was avenging the deaths at Waco and striking a blow against a totalitarian American government. "I did it for the larger good," he told the authors of the new book "American Terrorist." Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, believed that by mailing bombs to scientists and business executives the technologically driven society he loathed would topple. Ramzi Yousef masterminded the bombing of the World Trade Center to strike at "the great Satan"--America. Such convictions, sociologist Richard Moran of Mount Holyoke College argued last week in a Washington Post op-ed piece, account for the absence of remorse in such evildoers: they feel "morally justified in committing their crimes."

The justification need not be political. In her rambling confession to drowning her sons Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months, in 1994 by strapping them into their seats in her Mazda and rolling it into a South Carolina lake, Susan Smith wrote, "I love my children with all my heart. My children deserve to have the best, and now they will." She had dispatched them to God. (Of course, her justification may have been no more than after-the-fact rationalizing; she also had a boyfriend who, she thought, would marry her if she were not encumbered with children.) Even an honest miscalculation about means and ends, however, hardly excuses acts like hers, McVeigh's or Kaczynski's. "You have a moral responsibility as a human being not to make such an egregious miscalculation," says UCLA's Schwartz.

Acts of evil can also arise from a skewed hierarchy of values. We may call Tony Soprano's deeds--brutal and coldblooded murders--evil. But we do not call the man himself evil, for his actions spring from a belief system rooted in such respected values as family loyalty and filial duty.

The danger of trying to explain evil is that we risk falling into the abyss of predestination: that given these life events, this social surround and this personality type, the evil deed was inevitable. Explanation becomes exculpation, and volition gets eclipsed. To understand all should not be to forgive all.