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Citizen Servatius

The Nature of EvilSociety has denied its existence for too long

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My sister didn't tell us what happened to her in the first grade until many years later. We were sitting around the dinner table, talking about school, when she casually mentioned her coaching sessions with her first grade teacher, a Catholic nun we'll call Sister Helen. Though she was well behaved, Sister Helen would often keep my sister in while the other kids went on to recess.

My sister was by no means at the bottom of their class, but Sister Helen would berate her, telling my sister she was stupid, that she was ugly, that her handwriting was sloppy, that she would never get things right. I have no doubt that my mother would have throttled the woman had she been given the chance, but Sister Helen was too smart for that. She told my sister not to tell anyone, and for a long time, she didn't.

Now why would Sister Helen, a woman who had dedicated her life to serving God, go out of her way to destroy a child's fragile self-esteem? And for that matter, why would someone like Andrea Yates take the trouble to execute her children when she could have dumped them off at Social Services or left them at the police station if she didn't want them? Of all the ways there are to kill thousands of people, why choose the one the terrorists chose on September 11, the one in which they would have to forfeit their own lives to kill others?

These cases all have one thing in common. In each, someone went out of their way, risking detection and their own well being, to commit a purposeful act of destruction upon the innocent.

These are the very sorts of things mainstream America has struggled so hard to understand in recent years. Our theories have been as diverse as the theorizers. Yates must have suffered from postpartum depression or the repression of motherhood. Those like Sister Helen must be reacting to the harsh circumstances of the lives they have chosen, or lashing out because they had an abusive childhood, were underprivileged or somehow neglected by those who should have loved them. Those responsible for the terrorist acts must hate us because of our relative prosperity as a nation.

But there's a theory that is always missing from the bunch, one that had been all but banned from mainstream culture before September 11. It's a theory so simple yet so unthinkable that it had almost become a social breach to blurt it out. So here goes.

Perhaps these people were evil. Maybe for every truly good person in this world there is one that is rotten to the core. Understand that I'm not talking about people with psychological disorders, those in prison, those who lash out in a fit of anger, or even those who have done something in the past that physically or emotionally scarred another person. Very few of the sort of people I'm talking about are actually killers -- or even physically dangerous. But they systematically seek out and target the innocent for physical or mental destruction -- and enjoy the process of carrying it out. I'm talking about people whose hearts are as cold and unreachable as those of the dead, though their personal manner may be sweet as punch. Though they often appear to be, these people aren't like the rest of us, and yes, they do exist.

These are the folks whose initial presence stirs an icky primeval instinct that still lives inside us, an instinct alive and well in household pets, but one we seem compelled by civilized society to shut off and ignore.

It seems our whole culture has become geared toward muting that instinct. In our modern world, evil only exists in films, in video games and, occasionally, in the mind of the rare deranged killer. When something awful happens to someone at the hand of another, our culture has taught us to look for an explanation outside that person, not inside. It's as if forces working upon someone, rather than within them, are the only ones capable of causing them to do evil.

We have been denying the existence of pure, unredeemable evil for so long now that we have become particularly vulnerable to it -- and completely shocked by any reminder of its existence.

When the planes flew into the World Trade Center on September 11, we were forced as a country to stare evil in the face, to view it again and again in the naked reality of its senseless existence, and if only on some deep level, to admit that it's alive in this world. This knowledge was what rocked the foundation that supports our culture and left a nation in denial so shell-shocked.

Only a year ago, we were disarming as if evil no longer existed. Politicians slashed our defense budget and argued over whether we actually needed a missile defense system. Bans and restrictions on guns were seriously discussed on Capitol Hill.

But after September 11, sales of guns, security equipment and gas masks across the country soared. Ask yourself, why? After all, no logical person would argue that keeping these things in one's home would have stopped what happened on September 11, or that they would be of much use in the future, since terrorists aren't known to make house calls.

So whom or what are we arming ourselves against?

Perhaps it's that which has a name and no name at all. Maybe we're finally beginning to understand the fine line between the unspeakable nature of evil and the act of speaking of its existence.

A decade ago, psychiatrist and best-selling author Dr. Scott Peck urged his colleagues to join him in undertaking a clinical study of evil in his book People of the Lie, in which, through systematic study, he laid out the differences between patients he had treated who were merely sick, and those he believed to be evil.

The book was a success with the public -- and largely ignored by his colleagues.

It is a reflection of the enormous mystery of the subject, that we do not have a generally accepted definition of evil, Peck wrote. Yet in our hearts, I think we all have some understanding of its nature.

Now, so much more than ever.

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