What is evil?

This article was first published in fall, 2010, against the backdrop of the Toronto G8 Conference and the shocking trial of Russel Williams, a very high level officer in the Canadian military who stalked and killed two women, one of whom was under his command.  The Williams trial seemed especially to underline the ambivalence that we are faced with when trying to tell the world’s heroes from its villians–who are we to trust and to follow in such confusing times?  Are there psychopaths among us, and are they different that ordinary people?  Can we learn to understand, and to prevent, whatever it is that turns a person into a soul-less killer? 

It isn’t just the trial of Russell Williams that has us edgy last month. We are still reeling from the footage of apparent riots, followed by seemingly random detainments of peaceful protestors in Toronto during the G8 conference. Corruption in the sale of BC Rail, Afghanistan’s meeting with the Taliban, and homophobic bully-induced suicides all raised questions about the nature of humans. Yet whatever is worth saying about the problem of evil in the world isn’t coming from the traditional authorities that are supposed to be protecting us from it: government, police, armies and the church have, one could argue, alet us down. Nor are Psychologists and the like faring much better; looking for pathology to explain evil is looking for excuses, not answers.

Small children play games of “good guys” vs. “bad guys”, where the heroes wear capes and the villains have names like “Lex Luther” and “The Joker.” Adults live in a more complicated world, where the smiling, clean-cut face of “Canada’s bright, shining lie”—a GI Joe model if there ever was one—might be one who tortured women.

The problem with mainstream coverage of sensational crimes that they keep us looking for an evil man; a monster who is different from the rest of us. Like the boogie men of our childhood, we expect the Russell Williams’s to look different. Maybe they will come in a mask like Freddy Krueger, or, like Robert Picton, appear unshaven and smell like a pig farm. And if they do not, then we take comfort in seeing them as sexual perverts who, unlike the rest of us, get off in strange and humiliating ways. So it is that the psychologists interviewed by the media (CTV News, “Col. Williams Double Life Not Uncommon: Experts”; Torstar News Service, “Col. Russell Williams: A serial killer like none police have seen”) focus on Williams not as a killer, but as a sexual deviant, a man who “suffered from paraphilias” and Psychopathy—the condition of having no conscience or empathy toward the victims of their behavior.

But it is deeds, not people, that are evil. The best person in the world still has the capacity to do something inexplicably horrible, and the worst can do something admirable or kind. Russell Williams belongs to the same species as the rest of us. So did Hitler, Jesus, Ghandi and Mother Teresa. The protest, “I’m not that kind of person”, is meaningless if the footprints of our deeds say otherwise.

Both of our families wrestled with the commonness of evil. Serena’s father, a pastor, didn’t believe in there was any Hell worse than what we humans could create on Earth. Hell, he said, was the state of being separated from the grace of God, blind and deaf to Love. When evil happened, it was attributed to the most mundane of human failings: cowardice, greed, arrogant pride, and dehumanizing one’s victims. In Monika’s family, three successive generations were driven from their homes by advancing fronts of European wars. In such times, evil is much harder to avoid, and more difficult to discern. Still, the roots of war not exotic; the leaders of nations fall prey to the same failures of ethics that the rest of us know all too well.

Russell Williams wasn’t sick or crazy. Anybody looking for a Freddy Kruegar or a Boogie Man would have missed him. Yes, he had some unusual sexual preferences, but many people do and they don’t invade the bedrooms of young girls to steal their privacy,safety and innocence. Perhaps he also had the nervous system of a Psychopath, inclined to desire high levels of adrenalin-releasing thrills. But most people who have such a nervous system find ways to satisfy their temperament without killing. They ride motorcycles, climb rock faces, surf, or attend ambulances.

No, Williams suffered from a breakdown of ethics, not mental health. His weaknesses are familiar and mundane. He was intrusive, controlling, and arrogant. He felt entitled, to intrude on the most intimate of personal spaces and to steal pleasure at the expense of others. He was selfish. He was cowardly. He liked to dominate. He picked on people who were weaker than he was. He was cruel in his tastes for sex, and, more importantly, he confused people with objects to be used and thrown away. He may have been a Corporal, but he was still a nasty little man whose actions created a Hell on Earth for himself and for his victims.

Apart form the universal condition of being human, there are things that we need to pay attention to here. Sexual killers are almost always male; neither of us could think of a single exception except for, possibly, Karla Homulka. Our culture has a problem in confusing masculinity with dominance, and in presenting women as commodities for the pleasure of men. Recent trends in pornography and in mainstream advertising have turned to presenting women as the throw-away waste of sex: images of women lying on city streets looking like broken dolls have become so commonplace that we hardly notice them anymore. Williams collected pornography along with the images and the underwear of his victims. He does not appear to have been a very creative man; his view of women and girls as being objects for his use and abuse was hardly original.

Williams was also a military man. Serving militarized zones would be extremely difficult if one kept intact the capacity for empathy with every casualty of war. But the ability to dampen empathy can run away on us, and one of the ways that war scars people is by attacking their ability to feel. No, Williams is in no way typical or representative of the Canadian military; we work with military families and are constantly moved by the deep honor and ethics displayed by them, especially under terrible circumstances. But the destruction of empathy is a risk of military trauma, and there is much more that we need to know and understand about how to prevent and to heal this for civilian life. We need to devote resources to studying violence and emotional numbing as possible side-effects of our need for national defense.

Finally, we need to remember that we aren’t going to prevent the Russell Williams’s of the world by just trying to avoid evil. Evil fills a void left by the absence of something else. If Serena’s father had it right, then that missing element is a cultivated appreciative gaze. No person who perceived the beauty of a little girl’s love for pretty under-things would violate those things the way Williams did. No one who had eyes to see a young woman the way her doting father saw her would hurt that woman the way Williams did. No one who could see the calm beauty of Corporal Marie France Comeau, or the sparkle and the dreams of Jessica Lloyd would have snuffed those lives out.

We need to cultivate a culture where the loving, caring gaze is taught to both genders throughout their growing years. Here are some ways to start:

• Teach both genders to take personal responsibility for the protection of weaker beings.
• confront both boys and girls when they show arrogance and a sense of entitlement to the attention, labor, personal space, belongings, or the dignity of another person.
• stop excusing boys when they exploit girls, sexually or in any other way, and teach them to take care of their own needs in life.
• stop promoting dominance and insensitivity, and stop electing bullies to office.
• study more the psychic injuries of war and how to treat them
• value teachers more, fighters less, and those who know how to nurture and protect what is precious, most of all.