A death in Milwaukee last week got me thinking about the nature of evil.
Patrick Kennedy (NOT evil), the Milwaukee police detective to whom serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (evil) confessed his heinous crimes, died last Thursday of an apparent heart attack. According to quotes in his obituary taken from various interviews, people sometimes told Kennedy that, in his work with Dahmer, he had looked evil “squarely in the eye.”
I can’t say that I really did, because when I looked at Jeffrey Dahmer, what surprised me the most during the six weeks I talked to him was how very much like you and me he really was.
I mean, I had breakfast with him and lunch with him, and I would bring the paper in and show him what the people were saying about him. It sounds weird that we became friends, but we were kind of friendly. We were friends. I actually kind of started to like the guy and feel sorry for him. He was a pathetic soul.
Jeffrey Dahmer committed his crimes here in Milwaukee. I vividly recall reading excerpts of Dahmer’s confession in the local newspaper at the time of his trial. What struck me almost as much as the gruesomeness of his acts was the stark contrast between the horrific murders Dahmer was describing and the simple, matter-of-fact way he described them. What I “heard” in the transcripts was the voice of a boy. Jeffrey Dahmer, a man who killed and cannibalized 17 young men and boys, sounded . . . rather lost and naïve.
“Banality of evil” is a phrase originated by Hannah Arendt while covering Adolf Eichmann’s war crimes trial for The New Yorker. The term also appears in the title of her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt was talking about banality at a systemic level more than at an individual one. But for me the concept has also always resonated as relevant when applied to an individual apart from the societal context.
My “feel” for the phrase arises from Stanley Milgram’s brilliant exploration of individual agency in “The Perils of Obedience.” Milgram’s famous 1973 essay recounts the unsettling results of a psychology experiment in which a “teacher” was instructed to deliver an electrical shock to a “learner,” hidden behind a screen, every time the “learner” answered a question incorrectly. With each additional wrong answer, the intensity of the electrical shock would increase incrementally. No electrical shocks were actually delivered, though. The “learner” who issued anguished cries of pain from behind the screen was merely an actor.
Ostensibly, the experiment’s purpose was to observe the effects of punishment on learning. However, its real goal was to see how far a “teacher” would go in delivering escalating amounts of electricity to the “learner.” If a “teacher” asked permission to stop, the experimenter replied, “No, the experiment requires you to go on. Please continue.” The clear implication was that to end the experiment prematurely would invalidate it completely.
“Teachers” had strange and widely varying reactions to the experimenter’s command to continue. Some became officious in their administration of the shocks. Some were distraught but still kept sending the required shocks to the learner. One man began laughing uncontrollably. In the first experiment, 25 out of 40 subjects continued to follow the experimenter’s directive until they had administered 450 volts (the most potent level on the generator) for the third time. At this point, the experimenter ended the session.
Only a small percentage of “teachers” had the wherewithal simply to refuse the order to deliver additional shocks once they felt that the intensity had become too much for the hidden “learner” to bear. (Read the essay. It is excellent preparation for acting in a way you could be proud of should you ever find yourself caught up in similarly conflicting circumstances :))
Milgram did a follow-up interview/questionnaire a year later with the man who could not stop laughing. Identified as “Mr. Braverman” in the essay, the man said that the experience had taught him something very important:
What appalled me was that I could possess this capacity for obedience and compliance to a central idea, i.e., the value of a memory experiment, even after it became clear that continued adherence to this value was at the expense of violation of another value, i.e., don’t hurt someone who is helpless and not hurting you. As my wife said, “You can call yourself Eichmann.” I hope I deal more effectively with any future conflicts of values I encounter.
Building on that remark, Milgram concludes that Hannah Arendt was right. Adolf Eichmann, one of the main forces behind the Holocaust, was not a “sadistic monster,” after all—despite the urgent need everyone instinctively felt to believe otherwise.
Somehow it was felt that the monstrous deeds carried out by Eichmann required a brutal, twisted personality, evil incarnate. After witnessing hundreds of ordinary persons submit to the authority in our own experiments, I must conclude that Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might dare imagine. . . .
Even Eichmann was sickened when he toured the concentration camps, but he only had to sit at a desk and shuffle papers. At the same time the man in the camp who actually dropped Cyclon-b into the gas chambers was able to justify his behavior on the ground that he was only following orders from above. Thus there is fragmentation of the total human act; no one is confronted with the consequences of his decision to carry out the evil act. The person who assumes responsibility has evaporated. Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially organized evil in modern society.
Arendt was talking about socially-organized evil when she described it as “banal,” and Milgram’s reference also refers to Arendt’s meaning because of the “obedience” factor in his experiment. In a context involving authority and a separation of responsibility from action, people will be reluctant to assert themselves and will rationalize that they are only the instrument and not the actor.
But I think the banality of evil goes beyond that.
One week ago, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. As we all now know, two immigrant brothers were identified as suspects and a massive manhunt ensued. The older brother was killed in a shootout with law enforcement, and the younger was arrested after an intensive door-to-door search during a citywide lockdown.
What I keep returning to in the aftermath—especially on the heels of reading Patrick Kennedy’s obituary and recalling how strangely ordinary and “lost” Jeffrey Dahmer sounded to me in his confession—is the aghast collective reaction of stunned disbelief from people who knew Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
According to a story posted on Slate Sunday, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev returned to the campus of the University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth after the Boston Marathon bombings. He attended classes and went to a party.
“He was just relaxed,” the unnamed witness said. Tsarnaev led such a typical student life after the bombing that even after his photo was released as a suspect, some who knew him didn’t make the connection. “We made a joke like—that could be Dzhokhar,” said a 22-year-old resident assistant at the dorms where Tsarnaev lived. “But then we thought it just couldn’t be him. Dzhokhar? Never.”
According to an article in yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education, the UMass–Dartmouth campus was evacuated as a precaution once it became clear that Tsarnaev was a suspect, and his dorm room was searched for possible bombs. A young woman who lived in that dorm expressed the same confusion as others when interviewed. So many of the terrible things that happen, from terrorist attacks to mass-shootings by social outcasts, are connected with people who appear to have a screw loose, she said. In the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, she was at a loss for an explanation:
You usually get an indication of somebody you shouldn’t be around. Now that that is shattered, what do you do? Am I supposed to start worrying about going to school? Am I supposed to stop going to college?
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserves the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Clearly there’s a disconnect between the person everyone knows (or thinks they know) and the person who is suspected of killing and maiming so many people last week. That’s what’s so puzzling.
How could someone who seems so ordinary, so like the rest of us, be capable of such horrifying action?
The true dimensions of evil may be beyond our comprehension. It may be that humankind is capable in equal measure not only of more greatness but also of more evil than we care to imagine.
Heroes often downplay their courageous deeds. “I just did what anyone would have done in the situation,” they say, implying that they are just ordinary folks who rose to the occasion. Is it possible that the monsters among us are likewise just ordinary folks . . . who sank to the occasion?
And that such rising and falling are both common and predictable, i.e., banal?