As a political scientist
and a history
buff, I've had the opportunity to study more than few evil deeds
and evil people. Evil seems to come from two sources, either an inability to see others as human
, or from an overblown sense of self
. Ted Bundy
never saw his victims as human
. He felt nothing, and never believed that he
could be touched. HIs self-confidence never cracked until the last day before his execution
. He never thought anyone was really going to execute him. To him, his victim
s had no value beyond his pleasure. As people, they did not exist.
Almost to a man, evildoers see themseves as good. The confirmed psychopath who does evil because he can is more the stuff of novels than real life. They do exist but usually perform lesser, more localized evils. Serial killers they may be, but few sink to the level of genocide. They must hide in the shadows. Without the appeal of a transcendent idea, sociopaths cannot rise to positions of power and influence. The reason is simple: these people are nuts and anyone who comes to know them will recognize their madness before they attain real power.
It takes an idea, be it faith or ideology, to move a psychopath on to the stage of a Hitler or Pol Pot. The greatest evils of all are done by people who believe they are good. Adolf Hitler really believed that the Jews were a negative force that destroyed everything they came near. Consider Elie Wiesel's experiences in the concentration camps related in his short book Night. Wiesel recounts how as he and his fellow concentration camp inmates were run constantly in and out of showers. Now why would the Nazis do this to people whom they were expending as few resources on as possible? Consider the water and facilities costs for this, and you realize that they were trying to wash something away, as if Jewish people secreted some type of poison.
Fear too plays a role, for fear often blinds better people to the reality they face until they too have become party to madness. The Salem Witch Trials and the Spanish Inquisition were historical examples of people using torture and murder to preserve the truth of the Prince of Peace. They defined evil as heresy while forgetting that Jesus Christ spent his time among the samaritans, lepers and tax collectors. Mohammad Atta and his fellow suicide bombers truly believed that they would be rewarded in heaven for mass murder. They expected glory. In each case, these people really believed that they were serving the common good. In these cases the persecuters bought into an ideology --- or a theology --- that declared someone evil based on some ascribed characteristic. In essence, they overemphasized one bit of their beliefs to the point where they forgot the more important and fundamental commands of their faith. Stereotyping seems critical in turning the quest for goodness into darkness.
True believers are probably the most dangerous people on earth. At their best they perform the most marvelous acts of goodness. It takes a true believer to give up everything and spend your life serving the poor. Or to promote a cause when all seems hopeless. They accomplish much good, but such self sacrificing devotion can be obsessive. When obsession is tainted with hatred and egotism people slip over the edge into darkness. I have often wondered if both self-sacrificing good and extreme wickedness are two sides of the same coin.
Hitler and Osama bin Laden are examples of the true believer. Pol Pot's murderous tendencies were well described in The Killing Fields. Pol Pot sought to remake Cambodia into a socialist paradise. In order to do that he and his Khymer Rouge compatriots had to murder millions. These people kill for an ideal they have romanticized.
There are lots of small, petty evils in the world. The office back-stabbing or simple lying. Claiming credit for another's contribution so you can advance while leaving them flat. All stem from the selfishness.
When you come right down to it Evil is selfish. Evil begins when the worthy goals of ambition and loyalty to your neighbor excludes anyone from the defined 'in group.' Evil comes when the desire to step on someone matches the desire to step past them. Evil grows when we forget that even our Enemies are like ourselves.
To avoid evil, love your neighbor as your self. Accept them without judgement. Seek a path where both you and they are better off. Include others. Evil begins with exclusion. Evil begins when one man decides he is better than another.