Yesterday, I got a treat: my mother-in-law watched the now-potty-training toddler so that Sweet Husband and I could Go Out for the first time in, say, centuries. Really. Dueling strains of royalty have won, lost, and re-won The Throne of England in less time.
So, brushing aside hours and hours of news coverage and horrific footage, we went to a movie theater, bought tickets for "The Dark Knight Rises," and walked down the sloping aisle into the darkened cinema, where previews were playing. Such a simple series of actions - a routine enacted so many times. I caught myself glancing at the exit locations. I noted each person in the theater (easy - it was a matinee in a rural town...there were six of us). As the first few minutes of the film began to roll, I flinched inwardly, uncomfortably aware of what had transpired as those same images flicked across the screen a couple of states away just a few days ago.
If Christopher Nolan's recently concluded Batman trilogy offered a single truth, it was this: evil exists. And how we choose to acknowledge it, and fight it, matters.
It's not just that mental illness exists. It's not just that lies exist. It's not just that oppression exists. And it's not just that delusion exists. One of the deepest - and most haunting - truths about evil is that it exists because sometimes it is chosen for its own sake.
People do evil things for many reasons, it would seem. Often, however, these reasons end up easily sorted into a few categories. But the evil itself can seem so revolting that we instinctively try to explain how a human being could end up doing such things. So we say they are insane; we say they grew up in negative conditions; we even say they are possessed by Satan. We try to turn our eyes from what horrifies us - that perhaps someone chose evil on purpose.
So, why do people do evil things? On the face of it, the answers are very similar to looking for motives of murder. Why does someone commit murder? What motive is there?
*Gain. In murder mysteries, there is often a contested will at stake. Someone might inherit, and murder is committed. But sometimes gain is not monetary, not so easily counted in a ledger. (And, it should be noted, gain and jealousy are essentially linked: you wish to gain that which someone else has.) Sometimes gain might be a gain of power. And so we see genocides in Africa because one dictator brutally seizes power. And one might even argue that Hitler unleashed the evils of the Holocaust for power - to take over Europe. But I don't think that fully explains his actions.
*Revenge. Sometimes in who-dun-it's, the murderer is acting to take his or her revenge. Hatred or fury born of grief or injustice drives a person to kill. And sometimes evil on a larger scale than Agatha Christie's novels occurs because someone wants revenge. So, if a loved one is killed by a member of a larger group, the entire group is punished. A cinematic example is when young, fledgling Darth Vader slaughters the entire village of his mother's killer. A tragic real example is the death and horror wrought by two high school students who had been bullied at an educational institution called Columbine.
*Self-Preservation. Again, in a murder mystery genre, self-preservation often drives subsequent murders - a witness of the original crime, for instance. But I think that rarely does self-preservation elicit the original act of evil. Self-preservation often follows illicit gain or acts of revenge.
*Commitment to an ideology. Rarely does this ever factor in a classic murder mystery; perhaps sometimes in horror fiction. And that's strange, because this one has been talked about so much in the last 10 years, in light of evil acts perpetrated by terrorists. Even some Nazis fought for their country without embracing Hitler's all-consuming passion to exterminate Jews.Evil can be done in the name of an ideology, but in general, I tend to think that crazed dictators with a fervent ideology tend to attract sociopaths or psychopaths who kill for its own sake.
*Love. Now, occasionally this motive pops up in mystery lit. But let it be said that genuine love never allows evil to enter in. Killing for love, for instance, is not nearly as likely as killing for revenge (you took my loved one away) or even gain (I think I can gain my beloved's approval through this act - which, in fact, is a motive of fear - fear of not receiving love from the object of your interest). But, as biblical wisdom gently reminds us, perfect love casts out fear.
Now, because I'm not a psychiatrist, I will set aside evil done as a result of mental illness - except to say this: I think it is much, much rarer that people do evil things as a result of "insanity" than we tend to think, here in the 21st century. And one fascinating comment that addressed the recent Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting suggested that we do a disservice to the mentally ill by assuming that any horrific act of violence must necessarily spring from mental illness, and that, in fact, sometimes people just do bad things. And who was it who said this? A psychiatrist.
So, then, we come to what really bothers us. Because many of us have ideas about why, in general, people do evil things - so those of us who believe in God may think, say, that with free will, humans choose their own actions, however hurtful or grotesque. So what really bothers us?
The idea that someone could choose evil for its own sake. Many of us could imagine killing someone in self-defense, or in the act of defending an innocent person. A few of us could imagine killing someone out of revenge, say. But most of us are deeply bothered by the idea of doing something so apparently evil so casually. Often, the closest we get is glimpses of the idea that something so obviously evil to everyone else seeming like a trivial game to the perpetrator. Many people who could do something evil, or not, just as easily, are labeled sociopaths. But even sociopaths can live by a code, as the hit TV series "Dexter" assumes (Dexter is a sociopath with an urge to kill; but he lives by a code - he only kills those he's sure "deserve" it - killers, rapists, etc.). If a sociopath can choose to live by a code, then the flip side of the argument is that a sociopath can choose not to live by a moral code. And even then, we often acknowledge some limited understanding of sociopaths - we know they don't feel emotion the way most people do, or that their moral compass was never set the way everyone else's was.
But can a person who isn't a sociopath choose evil for its own sake? Or must all people who choose evil for its own sake necessarily be sociopaths?
Let me give you an example. A humiliating example. When I was a little kid, I have two distinct memories of choosing to do something wrong that would hurt someone else. The first instance, my brother did or said something that made me angry, and I gave in to a delicious instinct: I took pleasure in hitting him as hard as I could on the back. Now, I was five years older, so there was a considerable size difference. And unfortunately, to my mercenary little self, my mother saw it happen from the other room. Fortunately, for my future self, my mother saw it from another room. I was heartily disciplined, and had better character for it.
Then, a year or two later perhaps, the inner monster struck again. I hated playing outside when it was hot, and I loved listening in to adult conversation. So when one of mom's friends came for a visit, I wanted to be inside. But how to set the circumstances so that I could get in? I knew saying I wanted to come in to play wouldn't work. It wasn't that hot out, and I was a fairly inactive child who preferred reading to physical activity. She would shoo me outside for fresh air. Unless...unless the little girl mom babysat got bitten on the arm by my brother, who had been going through a biting phase. So I took the girl aside, convinced her to bite herself on the arm (I have no idea why she listened to me), told her to cry harder and tell mom that my brother had done it. Apparently she wasn't too bright. She did all this. My brother got a wailing of a lifetime. But to my intense disappointment, I was only in for 20 or 30 minutes before being sent outside to play again. It was years - years - before I laughingly brought up the incident, sure I had been caught and punished at some point in the past. My family sat with dropped jaws. "You did...what?!?"
Now literally or figuratively, by the grace of God, I no longer hit others for the distinct pleasure of it, nor do I set up circumstances to frame other people in order to get what I want. Perhaps I've only learned that I'll get caught and punished. Except that - with the occasional exception of wanting to punch someone in the nose, which rises from temper and not from calculated estimation of pleasure of punching - I don't have the desire to punch for pleasure or frame others to get my way anymore. I do have the desire to help others. But for some reason, at various points of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood - I chose to do the right thing instead of the evil thing. Perhaps I started choosing to do the right thing because I wanted to do the right thing. Perhaps I wanted to do the right thing because I saw and liked the positive impact it had on others' lives and my own. I do know that I, today, could choose evil, but I don't want to anymore. And it bothers us as fellow humans on this planet to know that some folks still do choose evil, because they still want to.
And I suspect that, since all of us were children at one point or another, we can remember moments of pure selfishness or conniving or cruelty that we are now ashamed of. But deep down, we know that, literally or figuratively, but for the grace of God, we would still choose those actions. Which makes us much closer to hurting others for our own purposes than we would like to admit. Which makes us more capable of deeper evil than we care to imagine.
And that - that - is what really bothers us. It's not the dissimilarity between you and a mass murderer. It's the uncomfortable points of likeness.
Take comfort, though.
We all have a choice.