OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) runs in my family. I have a cousin who is obsessive about dirt, germs and cleanliness. Many of my relatives are plagued by phobias, anxiety and hypochondria. Most of us have only been affected mildly, though I spent ten years with an obsessive neurosis (no compulsions, thank God) that manifested itself (as apparently it often does) as distressing, intrusive thoughts of violence that went round and round (yes, obsessively), in my head.
But before you feel sorry for me, I now regard my brush with mental illness as a great and enlightening gift. Granted, I didn’t feel that way at the time; although I functioned, I was very unhappy and fearful. Looking back, I now feel it gave me a perspective on human weakness and frailty, on the power of the irrational, that was a privilege, and bloody hard to gain any other way.
Thanks to Hive
It also made it impossible for me to believe, with any certainty, that I am a wholly good person who could never, under any circumstances, do wicked or terrible things. I was unpleasantly confronted with my own dark side, at least hourly, for almost a decade. I was forced, as it were, to face up to my own evil. Indeed, my neurosis only dissipated once I accepted my awful feelings as a part of me, not some spell imposed from outside. Now, when the story of an evildoer hits the news, I cannot help but feel, if not quite sympathy, then compassion, for those the rest of the world condemns.
The world, at least the Western part of it, is currently caught up – obsessed, some might say – with the four young men who it seems killed fifty-six people and injured hundreds more in London last week. We are fascinated by them, as we always are, because they seem so ordinary, so like us. It now appears they may not have intended to die themselves, having bought return tickets, which, presumably makes their crime even more terrible, because it makes them seem less fanatical and more cowardly. It also indicates that there must have been someone (often popularly referred to as a ‘mastermind’) who set these young men up to do the deed while deceiving them as to their own fate once the bomb was detonated. London police are now speculating that the young men may have thought there was a timer on the bombs that would give them time to escape once they activated the device. How is it possible to feel any compassion for people like this? People Kim Beazley described as ‘subhuman filth’ even before anyone knew who the bombers were. Presumably he expected them to be more like the bad guy from central casting, Osama Bin Laden, than a bunch of young blokes from Leeds with wives and parents and kids, just like everyone else.
Indeed, some commentators seem to feel that any attempt to understand what may have motivated the bombers is despicable in itself, that to seek reasons is the same as looking for excuses. They imply that those who want to understand are apologists for such people and therefore for the act of mass murder. They seem to insist that unless we write them off as evil, subhuman, as monsters, we somehow approve of them. Yet, wasn’t it Jesus who said we should hate the sin but love the sinner?
Such commentators become particularly apoplectic when it is claimed that our own actions in Iraq or Afghanistan may have created a climate that encourages young men – and some young women – to vent their hatred and frustrations on the innocent. Yet, to me, politics is probably only a tiny part of what leads human beings (and, I’m afraid, that is precisely what even the worst of them are) to participate in evil. Whatever I may personally think of the morality of our intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, I agree that terrorism is not a good reason to withdraw our troops. Whether our involvement has made us more vulnerable to such attacks, I do not know. I do know that fanatics prepared to lay waste to human life, sometimes in support of a cause or ideal, sometimes for no rational reason at all, are neither new nor rare. Just off the top of my head I can recall the sarin gas attack in the subways of Tokyo, the Baader Meinhof gangs of the seventies, the Black September atrocities at the Munich Olympics, the disaffected high school students mowing down teachers and kids in the hallways of schools, the loner who slaughtered the kindergarten students in the UK, Martin Bryant in Port Arthur, and the bloody siege at Beslan. Some people use politics and war as an excuse to indulge their taste for violence, some people don’t seem to bother with excuses.
So, are the perpetrators of these horrible events mad or bad? Are they born or made? If they are made, then there is a chance to unmake them and, if we are prepared to understand what unleashes the destructive side of a human being, some chance we may be able to minimise the number of such things occurring in the future. If they are born, there is only one possible solution; to rid ourselves of the evil ones amongst us. The temptation, then, because the solution is so much easier, is to believe that they are born, that people who do such things are a breed apart, bad seeds, rotten apples, call them what clichÃ© you will. It may be understandable that people feel this way, particularly if they have been fortunate enough never to come in contact with their own impulse towards violence and destruction.
Perhaps we prefer to exclude and condemn as inhuman those who do evil things because we also prefer to deny the dark side in ourselves. It is certainly much more comfortable to believe evil people are nothing like you or anyone you know, but it is also much more dangerous. In the past, enormous damage was done because people preferred to believe children were lying than believe that outwardly respectable people like priests, scoutmasters, fathers, brothers and uncles were doing horrifying things in private. Indeed, given that some psychologists believe unresolved trauma repeats itself, such blanket denials may not simply have left those children as victims but, when they grew up, still traumatised, created a whole new generation of victims.
Yet such discussions are brushed aside by those who believe evil exists, pure and simple and should be dealt with pitilessly. In fact, the simplistic and fundamental faiths of those who detonated the bombs in London, also accords with the idea that some people and beliefs are just evil. The difference in their case is that we are the evil ones, a belief which no doubt enabled the bombers to slaughter us without regret. And that is the problem, the belief that some people are just evil is one of the things that allows us to do evil. Once we have defined someone that way, the same rules do not apply. Maybe that’s why places like Guantanamao Bay and Abu Ghraib and even Baxter Detention Centre create conditions where Lindy England and her sadistic playmates can unleash a side of themselves they probably never even knew existed. Like the shocked and grieving relatives of the London bombers, Lindy’s friends and relatives claim she always appeared perfectly ordinary and loving, and that may be exactly the point. She was and so are we, until we find ourselves in the wrong set of circumstances. Monsters are never monsters, they are just people like us.
As happened in the case of the two boys who killed Jamie Bulger, when 11 year old Mary Bell (who also killed a child much younger than she was) stood trial for her crimes in the 60s, mobs bayed for her blood (or at least adult sized punishment). While I can well understand the all too human desperation and rage of those directly bereaved, the behaviour of such blood thirsty mobs always leads me to wonder if they are not merely acting out, albeit in a less extreme way, the same impulses that led to the very acts they condemn. The reason the West still has some claim to being a civilised society is because we do not hand over punishment to howling mobs, or to those directly affected. We reserve judgement for cooler heads and expect everyone to abide by the rule of law. That’s why the self righteous and accusatory role the media has adopted and the growth of trial by television is particularly worrying. Tabloid television programs that, in the name of public safety, make campaigns out of harassing and hounding those they claim to be child molesters frighten me much more than those they are attacking. However correct those claims may be, however despicable the crimes of the men they expose, there is something revolting and frightening about the delight taken in the public humiliation of other human beings by both the program makers and viewers.
We need to understand the people we call evil, not so much for their own sake, but for our own. We all need to know and understand what might trigger blood lust within us, so we are better able to face it and control it. One of the fundamental jobs of parenthood is to know how to help our children contain their own furious and, perhaps, evil impulses. As societies, we need to look at how we can stop either creating or ignoring circumstances that might help push someone over the edge. And, as pundits, we need to understand how words can inflame, and how dismissing some people as evil helps allow them to do exactly the same to us.
What you give out is what you get back, I’m afraid.
Cries Unheard. Gitta Sereny, Penguin, UK, 1998
For Your Own Good. Alice Miller, Noonday Press, Canada, 1990
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