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03/08/2013 08:27 am ET Updated May 08, 2013

On "The Psychology of Evil"

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

I was riveted by Professor Zimbardo's presentation, though ultimately somewhat frustrated by it. My dissatisfaction had largely to do with its title, which I found slightly misleading. I would have had no problem at all with the lecture had it been called "The Psychology of a Particular Form of Evil." Like Stanley Milgram, Professor Zimbardo has done much to expand our understanding of an exceptionally odious type of human behavior, perhaps most notoriously represented by Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal who justified his atrocities by claiming that he was only "following orders." But if "The Lucifer Effect" helps account for the "banal" evil of a functionary like Eichmann (to use Hannah Arendt's famous characterization), it does little to explain the kind of monstrous depravity embodied by his boss, Adolf Hitler.

As a true crime historian who has written about some of America's most heinous serial killers, I have encountered (thankfully only on paper) criminals whose enormities beggar the imagination. In the late 1920s, for example, an elderly madman named Albert Fish decided that it would be fun to abduct a young man, castrate him, and watch him bleed to death. At the last minute, he switched his unspeakable attentions to a pretty twelve-year-old girl named Grace Budd. Under the pretext of taking her to a children's birthday party, he lured her to a vacant house in Westchester, strangled her, butchered her body, and brought several pounds of her flesh back to his Manhattan rooming house, where, after cooking it into a stew, he spent the next week devouring it in a state of erotic ecstasy. Six years later, after eluding the law for all that time, Fish could not resist sending an obscene letter to Grace's mother, describing in gloating detail what he had done to her child.

It is a mystery that science has yet to -- and may never -- solve. -- Harold Schechter

Professor Zimbardo's formula for explaining evil simply cannot account for such abomination. Indeed, at least four of his "7 Social Processes" have no bearing on the likes of Albert Fish or Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy -- sadistic sex-murderers who often crow about their "personal responsibility," express open contempt for authority, flout all social norms, and actively embrace, even revel in, their evil.

Besides my career as a true crime writer, I am also a professor of American literature, and my understanding of the nature of evil has been shaped by those nineteenth-century authors who grappled with the problem throughout their lives, most notably Herman Melville. For Melville, evil was not a product of social forces but a universal principle, a cosmic malevolence in perpetual war with its opposite, love. In his final, posthumously published masterpiece, Billy Budd, he creates a character who perfectly exemplifies the kind of being we now call a criminal psychopath: the malign master-at-arms John Claggart, who sets out to destroy the innocent title character for no apparent reason. What makes Claggart especially frightening, says Melville, is the coolly rational way he goes about perpetrating crimes whose sheer atrocity "would seem to partake of the insane." In contemplating the influences that might have created a being like Claggart, Melville considers several possibilities. Perhaps Claggart was the product of "vicious training." Or maybe he had read too many "corrupting books." Or possibly he had overindulged in "licentious living." In the end, none of these explanations seems adequate, and Melville is forced to conclude that evil on the sale of Claggart's can never fully be accounted for, that it is -- in the words of Scripture -- a "mystery of iniquity." It is a mystery that science has yet to -- and may never -- solve.

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