Friday, August 24, 2012

The difference between evil and crazy

Photo of Anders Behring Breivik being sentenced in Norway courtesy
Today, a Norwegian court found Anders Behring Breivik legally sane and sentenced him to up to 21 years in jail, and possibly for the rest of his life, for his bomb and shooting spree last year that killed 77 people.

The case was unusual in many ways, not least because the prosecution was arguing that Breivik, was insane. The defendant argued he was sane and was waging a war against what he described as a Muslim invasion of Europe.

I have thought about that difference for a long time: where is that dividing line between “insanity” and “evil”? So many actions and ideas can be ascribed either description.

The epitome of evil-doer in modern pop culture is the serial killer, who is usually portrayed as mentally ill in some way — sociopathological, missing something in his or her mentality that prevents most of us from acting out those dark ideas, or damaged somehow by childhood abuse.

In reality, it seems that finding someone criminally insane suggests that we can cure the offender. If only we can give the right treatment, we can reform the offender, prevent him or her from doing those terrible deeds.

But what about evil? Is it a disease that we can cure? And what is evil?

This is a tricky question, one that greater minds than mind have struggled with for millennia. The question isn’t made easier by the shifting definition of evil over time and across the world. At one time, burning people alive was perceived as a good act, one that protected communities from contamination by evil or devilish ideas. Today in most of the Western world, the opposite reaction, tolerance, is perceived as the moral one.

In many parts of the world, the freedom of expression that the West so strongly defends is opposed by community leaders as a terrible evil, one that leads to community fracturing and moral degradation. When those proponents point to pornography, it’s easy to see their side.

However, trying to understand why someone would espouse an idea or take actions that we consider evil can lead us back to the original quandary. How can someone sane commit something so obviously evil as Breivik? What is wrong with his mind that can cause him to think that killing teenagers is defence of a culture?

The words

The questions of what evil is, and what we can or should do about it, are rich grounds for writers. I could write stories about this from so many different angles (if I had the time, of course). Can evil be cured with the right psychological treatment? If we could somehow cure all insanities, would we eliminate the serial killer, the murderer for pleasure? Or would another shift in cultural mores bring back the days of gladiatorial combat to the death for the pleasure of audiences?

1 comment:

  1. Great post! This is a question that fascinates me as well. I'm somewhat fascinated by madness, though not all those who are mad are also evil, so the two aren't mutually exclusive. I think it all really comes down to choice. No matter what the sob story is, not everyone ends up murdering others, so I don't think evil can ever be totally blamed on outside circumstance. In the beginning, it's always a matter of bad choices. After a while, i can see that perhaps the person is so far gone that they can't choose anything else, but it still started with them choosing. I agree that it's a fascinating question, especially for writers. Thanks for posting! :D