Towards a Unified Theory of Evil

Oak Creek, Wisconsin.  Photo Credit: Washington Post staff.
Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Photo Credit: Washington Post staff.

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. The world has become a terrifying place.

Or has it? Is this really anything new?

The aftermath of the 2010 German Bakery bombing in Pune.

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? What about them?

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. It is worth making an effort to understand  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?

This Travelodge in Oceanside was shut down in 2011 because of its use in sex trafficking by gang members.
This Travelodge in Oceanside was shut down in 2011 because of its use in sex trafficking by gang members.

Since I was about 13 years old, I have been deeply and abidingly interested in these questions. 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. We need to understand the worlds we live in, and mine was for many years almost unrelentingly evil.

It might help to tell a little of my story. My dad molested me from the time I can remember. When I was two, he raped me with a pair of scissors. Like many sociopaths, he killed animals from time to time—usually in front of me—and at least once insisted I kill as well. 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 have incoherent memories of being dunked head-first in water—the tub or the toilet. I think she did that. But I don’t know.

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.

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. Some of this is about ordinary people committing unbelievably, horrifyingly evil acts..

This blog is not so much the place where I am telling my story, as the place where I work to understand those stories. And also where I try to heal the scars.

Thanks for being here with me.


4 thoughts on “Towards a Unified Theory of Evil

  1. gavinpandion March 20, 2013 / 6:39 pm

    “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.”

    I think this is a key problem with prosecuting cases against extremely perverse crime networks like the prostitution of small children for pedophiles, as opposed to prostitution of teens that society can more readily recognize as a “normal” temptation for the customers, i.e. statutory rape violations in prostitution. People are easily persuaded they should disbelieve that a group of seemingly sane adults could or would collude to get away with something like pimping toddlers. There’s a large and influential defendants’ organization in the U.S. that has effectively shut down prosecution of multiple-abuser cases, especially those with ritual abuse elements, by relying on the “witch hunt” defense in headlines to turn public opinion against the prosecution, a theory of human decency belied only by conviction rates for organized ritual abuse of children in Europe, where similar defenses have also worked in some major cases.

    When perpetrators of especially perverse crimes happen to be white-collar professionals, the prejudice to assume that they are obviously too decent to be culpable of heinous crimes against children is even stronger. There is a very heavy classism bias in the criminal justice system, and even people who feel that the role of the justice system in perpetuating inner-city poverty traps is a serious social justice problem tend to underrate the impunity enjoyed by socioeconomic strata that have better access to lawyers and tend to be presumed-decent just for going around in business attire more often than the rest of us.

    I like this blogger’s description of the cultural capital enjoyed by someone raised in an upper socioeconomic class household:

    “I’ve been one of the lucky ones, that way. In my house, growing up I was surrounded by attractive, inviting (and no doubt somewhat expensive) books about astronomy, biology, and history. My parents were not intimidated by schoolteachers and had no trouble advocating for my well-being. I was enrolled as a matter of course in piano lessons, the debating club, the math club, for which I got to go on optional school trips. I learned to feel at home in the world of school. I had a mother who daily trained me in the value of self-motivated hard work, and a father who modeled for me the kind of casual arrogance that often gets taken for confidence and, in, turn, for ability. In short, I learned – without being particularly aware of it – a whole range of embodied and cognitive skills and dispositions that made school relatively comfortable and accessible for me.”

    From “The Practical Theorist”:

    That “casual arrogance” skill set also encompasses the means of “passing” for someone who enjoys moral authority as far as conventional morality goes – in fact, the more conventional your values are perceived to be, the less your moral authority is likely to be questioned, unless you’re on trial for patriarchal narrow-mindedness and the audience is especially sympathetic to feminist/post-modern theories of law. (Which I doubt is truly commonplace yet, but there does seem to be a serious gender bias in interpersonal violence to expect assailants to be male and victims female, to the point that male victims of domestic violence from female assailants get laughed out of the room when they seek help from the authorities.)

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