Understanding Ordinary Evil

How everyday people engage in acts of extraordinary horror.

In this undated photo provided by Robin Young, Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev poses for a photo after graduating from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School. Tsarnaev is the surviving suspect in the marathon bombings.

Surviving Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev poses for a photo after graduating from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School.

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All of America's national security strategy on counterterrorism is based, in part, on a single core assumption: that our terrorist enemies are plainly and uniformly "abnormal." Significantly, however, such presumptively stark polarities between normal and abnormal, good and evil, represent a debilitating caricature. In order to better understand and combat these enemies, we must first learn to acknowledge that even "normal" individuals can sometimes do us great harm.

What does this mean? By definition, at least, psychopathology and normalcy would appear to be mutually exclusive. Yet some of our most insightful thinkers have reasoned otherwise. In these examples, they have willingly looked beyond the seductive veneers of orthodox psychological investigation.

Sigmund Freud wrote about the "Psychopathology of Everyday Life" (1914) while tracing some intriguing connections between "the abnormal" and "the normal," and was genuinely surprised to learn just how faint the line of demarcation could be. More precisely, in exploring parapraxes, or slips of the tongue, a phenomenon that we now conventionally call "Freudian slips," he concluded that certain psychopathologic traits could occasionally be discovered in normal persons.

Psychoneuroses and psychoses were typically found to a lesser degree among the presumably normal subjects. But they were still present, plainly observable and also readily identifiable.

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Later, after World War II and the Holocaust, the distinguished American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton interviewed many Nazi doctors. Perplexed, as a physician, that the unprecedented Nazi crimes had somehow been committed in the name of "hygiene," and that the medicalized murders had unashamedly been termed "therapeutic," Lifton was determined to answer certain basic questions. Most rudimentary of all queries, was this: How could the Nazi doctors have conformed the large-scale medicalized killing of innocent and defenseless human beings with an otherwise completely normal private life?

However counter-intuitive, it was not uncommon that Nazi doctors had been perfectly good fathers and husbands. Indeed, like some of the most heinous concentration camp commandants, these physicians who were sworn to "do no harm" were usually quite capable of supervising the systematic murder of Jewish children, six days a week, and then going off to church with their families on the seventh.

In Auschwitz, on Sunday, SS prayers were gratifyingly uttered in chorus. How could this be? And how can Lifton's scholarly insights and answers from this earlier era of mass criminality help us to better understand present and future anti-American terrorists?

Lifton had carried on his unique examination of the Nazi "biomedical vision" as a Yale professor and as a Fellow of the Max Planck Institute for Research in Psychopathology and Psychotherapy. This was not, therefore, just a random undertaking of informal or unstructured curiosity. Rather, adhering to widely-accepted and distinctly impressive scientific protocols, Lifton embarked upon a rigorous academic study of the most meticulous and refined sort.

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The Oath of Hippocrates pledges that the physician "will keep pure and holy both my life and my art." Asked about this unwavering duty of holistic purity, most of the SS doctors interviewed had seen no contradiction. "The Jew," they would invariably claim, "was an evident source of infection." Ridding society of the Jews, it follows, was always an act of both "healing" and "compassion."

For the Nazi doctors, genocide had been committed as a permissible and commendable form of "healing." Simultaneously, for them, exterminating a "lower species of life," or "vermin," was a principled act of hygiene, and also an act of mercy. In essence, this methodical killing was justified as nothing less than an obligatory therapeutic imperative.