Explaining Evil; Again

paul - Dorchester, Massachusetts
Entered on March 16, 2009
Age Group: 30 - 50
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Last week as Bernard Madoff was found guilty of one of the worst cases of investment fraud in history – not to mention one of the greatest examples of man’s inhumanity against man – I was given yet another opportunity to try and answer to my 17 year-old son why a person would commit such a hurtful and selfish transgression against innocent people and friends. In essence, my son was asking me to explain why people are evil and, once again, I am not sure I provided him any more valuable insight into malevolence since the last time we had this talk. I believe why I am unable to offer a clear and convincing explanation is that I do not completely understand evil myself and why it seems to grow like a cancer in certain people.

In my son’s short life we have had far too many occasions where he has asked me this same question. From the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh, to the massacres at Columbine and Virginia Tech (and the many less-celebrated random shootings in-between); to the terrorist attacks on September 11 and the financial killings by greedy corporate CEOs like Ken Lay and Madoff; evil has been a constant companion and backdrop to my boy’s young life. And because I felt it was important to discuss these seminal moments with him, we have spent hours wading through some of the worst historical events of murder, mayhem and personal destruction.

At the risk of sounding like a homespun Pollyanna; I wake each day believing in the goodness of people trying to temper that emotion with a fair share of life-generated cynicism. I still cannot be convinced that, if given the chance those strangers walking next to me on the sidewalk and standing elbow-to-elbow in the elevator, or colleagues with whom I work and spend countless hours together would choose to “do me wrong.” This is an ethic and life choice I have passed onto our son and at this point in my life he has shown us signs that he’s a good kid, with a good heart and wouldn’t willfully harm anyone. So then, how to explain the existence and application of evil into lives that are supposed to be otherwise. What words can I find to best illustrate the thoughts that must go through a person’s mind and those feelings that exist in their heart to make them pull the trigger or fly a plane into a skyscraper; taking innocent lives in the process?

When he was younger, I used to tell my son that there are certain people who do “bad” things to good people and although we don’t know why, it doesn’t mean that everyone is bad, or that we need to be bad in return. For me, it was important that he follow a certain moral code of humanity and learn to live a life that took a high road away from this type of behavior. I still believe that I was right in my teaching, but the longer we live and the more these malicious incidents become commonplace; rating little more than a mention on the evening news, I wonder what I can possibly say that will bring clarity to a teen-aged boy who is beginning to form his own opinion, which may run somewhat contrary to mine. Do I teach him to think “guilty until innocent” in order to protect himself?

The truth in trying to explain evil is that there is no rationale for any of these actions. The best I can come up with in explaining this to my son is that there is something terribly different, if not wrong with McVeigh, Cho, Madoff or the September 11 terrorists, that makes them act in such an aberrant fashion. I also tell him that we are, unfortunately, at the mercy of these individuals.

Telling a young person to continue to believe that there are more good people than bad and that in the end good overcomes evil, even in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary, adds new meaning to the concept of wishful thinking. I know he believes what I tell him; however, he is reaching the age of independent thought and probably recognizes that good triumphing over evil is flawed. “No offense Dad, but history tells me otherwise and I’m sure we will have this talk again at same point soon.” Sadly, I suppose he’s right.