Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Why Are Some People Evil?

Yes, of course the men who destroyed the Petit family in Cheshire are evil.

But what does that mean, exactly?

"Evil" is a pejorative, subjective term that carries little formal meaning. Sociologists blanch at the word. They prefer a more clinical "abnormal behavior" or even insist that abnormality depends on context.

How then do we characterize the two men who allegedly beat a well-known Cheshire doctor and killed his wife and children?

Do we describe the perpetrator's actions as the result of the environments in which they were raised? If so, we do not know the specifics of how these hypothetical criminals were reared. They sure weren't brought up by Ozzie and Harriet.

Besides, plenty of people survive poverty, abuse and neglect to become law-abiding citizens. They may be depressed, ill-tempered, or unpleasant, but they do not wantonly rape and kill.

Perhaps the brains of these murders have physiological abnormalities. That's almost a given: horrendously abnormal behavior must reflect an underlying abnormal mind.

Perhaps the pair had complementary psychopathologies.

One may have influenced the other, convincing him that breaking and entering, kidnapping, bank robbery, sexual assault, attempted murder, and murder, and arson was a sensible idea. In that case, the killer who went along must have an extremely weak sense of self or of reality.

Both men arrested in the case have long criminal records, so it's fair to say that whatever was awry in their minds has been that way for quite a while. Could they have controlled these impulses? How many people have the same pressure to act, but hold their homicidal fantasies in check?

Incarceration apparently did not help. They were aware of the death penalty, but the ultimate punishment did not deter them. We cannot put to death or maim convicts to ensure that they will not commit a future crime.

That would mean that the penalty for any infraction is death. Do we want to live in a country like that?

In 18h century London, pockets were picked as crowds watched pick-pockets being hanged. Some societies cut off the hands of thieves, and stone adulterers, but these savage punishments have not brought forth a crime-free paradise.

Since most of us no longer believe in "evil spirits," at least not literally, we are left with only two two avenues of explanation: genetic and environmental.

There is no easy answer, other than that imprecise, loaded word, "evil."

In this case, pure evil.


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