Sunday, March 7, 2010

Motiveless Malignity

Is there a dark force of ultimate malevolence in the universe? Is there an Evil Empire? Is the Manichean universe portrayed in the world of superheroes and in popular entertainments like Star Wars a reflection of some reality that underlies the model of human character by which we award or punish acts for being either beneficial or deleterious to mankind? For instance, there is one mode of thinking that tries to look compassionately on even the most evil character. The families of most crime victims cry out for retribution, but there are cases in which the survivors of terrible crimes talk about praying for those who have taken everything from them, of turning the other cheek rather than demanding an eye for an eye.

Still others attempt to psychologize and even empathize with murderers, as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer did in In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song. In the case of Jack Abbott, Mailer’s writing made a cause célèbre out of a career criminal who went on to both write and kill. But when does extreme evil defy explanation? Recently, a surgery tech was sentenced to thirty years for exchanging needles with patients, who then contracted Hepititis C. Does addiction explain or excuse her crime? And then there was the famous case of Nushawn Williams, who had unprotected sex with many women knowing that he was HIV positive. A pair of career criminals, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, murdered the wife and daughter of William Petit in Cheshire, Connecticut. They were caught fleeing the house just after setting fire to it. 

“The motive-hunting of motiveless malignity” is a phrase Coleridge used to describe Iago. Certain kinds of extreme evil defy explanation. Hitler and Stalin have unremarkable psychohistories. As a boy, Stalin read poetry and flirted with the priesthood. Hitler was an art student and painter. How do we explain murderers like Idi Amin, Slobodan Milošević and Robert Mugabe? Can we blame the Second World War on the Versailles Treaty? In Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen indicts a whole people for crimes that defy rationalization. When someone dies of a terminal disease, survivors sometimes seek the solace of cause-and-effect in the notion that the illness was brought on by stress or diet. Explanations are always reassuring, since they imply the existence of a universe that is ruled by reason. What is far more frightening are the elements of human behavior that lie beyond understanding. Meyer Levin wrote a  novel called Compulsion  based on the Leopold and Loeb case. That murder shocked the nation, and still provides one of the great examples of gratuitous iniquity.

1 comment:

  1. I think Coleridge's term describes so well a lot of the terrible things that have gone down.


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