August 6th, a lone gunman toting two semi-automatic weapons killed seven people and wounded a number of others at a crowded Sikh temple in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A few weeks before, a man opened fire in a theater in Colorado, killing 12 and wounded 58 others. The first instance is classified as a hate crime. The second appears to be entirely random—murder for the sake of it.
These are difficult and frightening times we live in. Much of the Middle East has become destabilized, with civil war raging in Syria and smoldering in Egypt. Terrorist attacks and sectarian violence have become so commonplace in Afghanistan and Iraq it no longer seems to be news. Bombs planted in war-torn Chechnya, where violence has erupted sporadically since the start of the First Chechen War in 1994, reportedly killed four individuals on the same day as the gurudwara shooting. Meanwhile, the Indian Mujahideen struck in Pune on August 1st, when serial explosions rocked Jangli Maharaj Road. These are especially frightening times we live in.
Or are they? What about the 500,000-100,000 murdered in Rwanda in 1994? The 200,000 killed in Bosnia’s “ethnic cleansing” between 1992 and 1995? The 2 million executed, starved, or worked to death in Cambodia starting in 1975? The .5 million hacked to death or burned alive during Partition? Or, for heaven’s sake, the 11 million who died during the Holocaust under Nazi rule? And going back to perhaps one of the first genocides of the 20th century, the mass killings of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish beginning in 1915?
Unspeakable acts are nothing new. Targets change, weapons improve, but ordinary people are now and always have been quite capable of torture and mass murder. Evil, it seems, is part of the human heart.
In saying this, I am not arguing that we are all just sinners, hopelessly seduced by that devil. Evil, at least in my mind, is a complicated matter. However, the situations in which evil arises share certain commonalities, at least in terms of how they can be approached. These are my questions:
Why do some people carry out evil acts?
Why do some engage in more extreme acts of evil than others?
Why do these events occur more at some times than others?
How is it that some people—and not others—take a stand against evil, often at great personal risk to themselves?
Since I was about 13 years old, I have been deeply and abidingly interested in these questions—nothing to do with “The axis of evil.” I just grew up enough to look around and take an interest in the world. While an adolescent Stephen Hawking may have started searching for a unified theory of physics at that age, I started looking for a unified theory of evil.
There is a simple reason for that: I was surrounded by evil, several kinds of evil, carried out by different people in both organized and haphazard ways. It was as puzzling as it was frightening, and I wanted to understand. I still want to understand.
It might help to tell a little of my story. After all, these are my only credentials in this strange field. My dad molested me from the time I can remember. When I was two, he raped me with a pair of scissors because what he was doing hurt and I had the temerity to let it show on my face. I don’t know how I was supposed to look, but it wasn’t the way I felt—hurting. Like many sociopaths, he killed animals from time to time—usually in front of me—and at least once insisted I kill as well. Apparently, his aim was not only to frighten, but to corrupt.
Before I was school-aged, my mother assaulted me multiple times—a few times by strangling, once with a pair of kitchen knives, once with a kitchen chair. I will never, ever know why. I have incoherent memories of being dunked head-first in water—the tub or the toilet.
To discipline me, one or both of them shut me up in a freezer until I lost consciousness. Alternatively, they chained me blindfolded to a wall in the garage, at times without any clothes on. In the garage, I was fed spoiled food, crawling with bugs, or no food at all and refused access to a toilet.
At the same time, my father was also my pimp. For 11 years, I serviced the perverted desires of pedophiles, mainly in a variety of cheap hotels, but also at home or in the homes of his friends. In addition, I performed sporadically in child pornography—both still and filmed.
I grew up in hell and the devil lived there.
Except these were people. People did these things, and in some cases, a lot of people. Unlike my mother, who acted impulsively and alone, my father was intelligent, organized, and apparently well-connected. For the most part, he abused me in the context of organizations that were systematically abusing other children and employed a variety of people—as actors and film crew, hotel managers, maintenance and janitorial workers, and human traffickers. (At the hotels where I worked, there were always other little girls—most likely trafficked from Mexico and Latin America—doing exactly what I was doing from the same shockingly early ages.) This was not simply the product of a single, unbalanced mind going over the edge, nor was it the result of a few people getting greedy and slipping into amoral behavior. There were too many of them—both consumers and producers—for these to be adequately understood as isolated incidents or as the work of the 1% of the population who simply lack conscience.
As unsettling as sudden, violent acts by sociopathic or delusional individuals are, atrocity carried out by groups of ordinary people are even more difficult to understand, but more urgently important—not just so that we can intervene but, for me, so that the world doesn’t seem hopelessly mad. After 26 years, I think I am finally starting to get a handle on it.