23 March 2009

The ordinary face of real evil

It is shocking to us how ordinary many really evil people look: not all monsters look like Freddy Krueger, says CyberShrink.

The word 'evil' does not always describe vicious slavering brutes intent on murder. Very ordinary people can be extremely evil, says CyberShrink.

The evil deeds of Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned and raped his daughter for 24 years in a cellar, have shocked the world. How was it possible for him to convince himself that it was justifiable?

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt , who watched the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, wrote of the 'banality of evil', emphasising how very mundane and ordinary people can carry out evil acts, in suitably encouraging circumstances.

She was thinking of situations such as those regularly found in the Nazi state , which provided a corrupt state philosophy, and ordered people to achieve results without restricting the methods they used in order to do so. It also provided protection for those who acted cruelly, enabling others to feel normal in conforming to these abnormal norms. Many Nazis claimed to be merely following orders, an excuse that has remained chilling ever since. And in South African human rights trials we saw similar people, making similar excuses.

Just following orders?
Following orders wasn't an adequate reason to compel them to act badly, but a comforting excuse that let them allow themselves to do so. With few exceptions, they all could have chosen to behave differently. They did have other options. They had far more discretion than they chose to use. And despite powerful peer pressure, not everyone in those situations behaved as they did. People do wrong, not because they are unaware of the consequences of their actions, but because they convince themselves that what they are doing is right.

It is also chilling exactly how ordinary, harmless and bland many truly evil people look. They are not the slavering brutes we imagine, or the monsters so often depicted in horror films. Of course, that's almost a requirement if one is to succeed in some forms of wickedness. People who have been swindled usually exclaim that the fraudster was "such a nice man" - which is a job requirement for his line of work. A serial killer who actually looked like Freddy Krueger (in A Nightmare on Elm Street) or Jazon (in the Friday 13th movie series), wouldn't get very far. It's the mild-looking killer who gets close enough to do damage.

It’s not the evil that's banal, it's the perpetrator. Arendt wasn't saying that those who do dreadful things are in no way different from us, but that they were not as wholly different as we would like to think. The frightening thing isn't that there are a handful of monsters amongst us, but that there are so many outwardly ordinary people who are capable of monstrosity.

How Fritzl justified himself
Fritzl, of course, was not operating, as were the Nazi killers and the South African torturers, within a regime that systematically enabled him to do bad things. Apart from his internal badness, the only external encouragement probably lay both in the traditional sexism of his traditional society, which saw women as objects destined to serve the purposes of a patriarch, and in a society that tended to assume all was well, and didn't pay much attention to what went on within individual homes.

He apparently didn't think about the wrongness of what he was doing, only about how well it suited him. It wasn't that he didn't realise it was wrong to do this - he thought that its wrongness didn't matter.

It seems to have been only in court when hearing the videotaped testimony of his daughter, that he realised this, and he said, "It was only yesterday that I realised how cruel I was to Elisabeth. I am sorry."

After seeing her evidence, he apparently asked immediately to see the psychiatrist appointed by the court to monitor his mental health during the trial. I don't think this represents true remorse, but a much overdue recognition that she was a person in her own right, and not an object or possession of his, and that he had really hurt and damaged her. How much was remorse for having done wrong, shame on recognising how others saw him, self-pity as he faced the consequences of the choices he had made , maybe even a fearful reaction to the belated recognition of his own monstrosity?

I find his lawyer's attempts to defend him wholly unconvincing. He claimed that Fritzl, too, was a victim of a cold and violent mother. That may be so, but we have no evidence whatever that this was so, only his own self-serving statements. And it is an insult to the millions of victims of similar or worse mistreatment, to suggest that this in any way justified his actions.

'Saving' her from the wicked world
There was the claim that in enslaving his daughter he somehow really believed he was saving her from the dangerous temptations of a wicked world. It makes no sense. He made no attempt to "save" any of his other children in that way; and how did he elude himself that he was "saving" her by forcing the very same temptations of that wicked world upon her, only doing it himself and allowing her no escape from them?

Then there was the suggestion that when the babies arrived he believed he was creating a superior, second family. The lawyer argued that a real monster would have killed all seven children he fathered with his daughter, as they were no use to him. But he could have used contraception and avoided those conceptions in the first place. Who says the children were of no use to him? Exerting complete power over others is a powerful drug of addiction , and he was hooked on that - why not multiply the number of those he controlled?

The real puzzles are different:

  • When his daughter Kerstin became ill, why did he take her to hospital when Elisabeth begged him to do so, rather than just let her die?
  • How did he allow Elisabeth to persuade him to respond to the televised pleas for the girl's mother to come to the hospital to assist in her treatment?
  • These choices led to his downfall - were they limited instances of a more normal and kinder response?
  • Or, having got away with so much for so long, and having talked his way out of everything that far , was he narcissistic and confident enough to believe he could somehow manage this again?

Ironically, in the curious legal system of Austria, he received the most severe sentence for what was probably the least of his offences (allowing one baby to die , when it may well have been beyond saving, anyway), while the penalties for the enormity of his other actions would have been far less.

The callous lack of curiosity of his wife, relatives, friends, neighbours and the local authorities, remains unexamined, and lacking any form of penalty.

On the old maps, tucked away in the corners, map-makers sometimes wrote, in unknown territory: "Here be monsters." For they recognised that the unknown is frightening. I'm beginning to wonder whether the same inscription shouldn't be added to a map of Austria?

(Professor M.A Simpson, aka CyberShrink, Health24, March 2009)


More by Cybershrink

2013-02-09 07:27



Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.