When the Good Do Bad
It’s always interesting to read the quotations of people who knew a mass murderer before he killed. They usually express complete bafflement that a person who seemed so kind and normal could do something so horrific.
Friends of Robert Bales, who is accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians, have expressed similar thoughts. Friends and teachers describe him as caring, gregarious and self-confident before he — in the vague metaphor of common usage — apparently “snapped.” As one childhood friend told The Times: “That’s not our Bobby. Something horrible, horrible had to happen to him.”
Any of us would be shocked if someone we knew and admired killed children. But these days it’s especially hard to think through these situations because of the worldview that prevails in our culture.
According to this view, most people are naturally good, because nature is good. The monstrosities of the world are caused by the few people (like Hitler or Idi Amin) who are fundamentally warped and evil.
This worldview gives us an easy conscience, because we don’t have to contemplate the evil in ourselves. But when somebody who seems mostly good does something completely awful, we’re rendered mute or confused.
But of course it happens all the time. That’s because even people who contain reservoirs of compassion and neighborliness also possess a latent potential to commit murder.
David Buss of the University of Texas asked his students if they had ever thought seriously about killing someone, and if so, to write out their homicidal fantasies in an essay. He was astonished to find that 91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women had detailed, vivid homicidal fantasies. He was even more astonished to learn how many steps some of his students had taken toward carrying them out.
One woman invited an abusive ex-boyfriend to dinner with thoughts of stabbing him in the chest. A young man in a fit of road rage pulled a baseball bat out of his trunk and would have pummeled his opponent if he hadn’t run away. Another young man planned the progression of his murder — crushing a former friend’s fingers, puncturing his lungs, then killing him.
These thoughts do not arise from playing violent video games, Buss argues. They occur because we are descended from creatures who killed to thrive and survive. We’re natural-born killers and the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so.
People who murder often live in situations that weaken sympathy and restraint. People who commit massacres, for example, often live with what the researchers call “forward panic.” After having endured a long period of fear, they find their enemies in a moment of vulnerability. Their fear turns to rage, and, as Steven Pinker writes in “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” they “explode in a savage frenzy.”
Serial killers are often charming, but have a high opinion of themselves that is not shared by the wider world. They are often extremely conscious of class and status and they develop venomous feelings toward people who do not pay them sufficient respect.