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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When the SS doctor, Fritz Klein, was asked by Dr. Lifton directly just how he could ever have become complicit in such a grotesque kingdom of death, Klein had replied unhesitatingly:  "Of course, I am a doctor, and I want to preserve life. And out of respect for human life, I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body. The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind."

Here we finally see it. Mass murder justified by medicalized metaphor. It is the kind of facile thinking by analogy not ordinarily associated with physicians, or indeed with any other people of education. It is, however, irrefutable evidence of just how easy it is to subordinate science and reason to the most inane and self-intoxicating doggerel. With such subordination, a very long human history confesses, otherwise normal behavior can quickly and completely give way to virtually any imaginable levels of predation.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Boston Marathon bombings.]

The duality of good and evil within each person is a very old theme in western thought, notably (and ironically) in German literature, especially from Goethe and Nietzsche to Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Always, in this literature, we learn that the most critical boundaries of caring and compassion are not between normal and abnormal persons, but instead within each person. After all, fully porous walls of normalcy and abnormality allow each single individual to oscillate more or less freely between altruism and cruelty.

The contrived veneer of human civilization is always thin. Always, it remains ready to crack. Inevitably, when it finally begins to fracture, as in the case of the proper British schoolboys marooned on the island in William Golding's "Lord of the Flies," a darkly ubiquitous human nature rises to expose deeply primal layers of barbarism. Always, reminds Thomas Mann, this nature will "dare to be barbaric, twice barbaric indeed."

After attending the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, political philosopher Hannah Arendt ventured the sobering hypothesis that evil can be ordinary, or "banal," that it can be generated by the literal (and seemingly benign) absence of thought. This novel interpretation of evil was widely challenged and disputed following the trial, but it was, in fact, already rooted in certain classical views of individual human dualism, particularly the central themes of Goethe's "Faust." Arendt's resurgent idea of evil as mundane was also reinforced by still-earlier studies of nefarious human behavior in the crowd, or the herd, or the mass, especially the auspiciously intersecting works of Soren Kierkegaard, Max Stirner, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gustave LeBon, Carl Jung, Elias Canetti and, of course, Sigmund Freud.

In all of these thematically-related writings, a common focus is placed on the potentially corrosive impact of group membership and identity upon individual behavior. In this genre, Freud's own best contribution is his "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego" (1921).

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Robert Lifton knew all this. Nonetheless, he was still seeking something more, another isolatable mechanism by which the ordinary or normal evildoer could render himself (or herself) abnormal. Ultimately, he found this vital mechanism in an intra-psychic process that he proceeded to call "doubling."

Very different from the traditional psychoanalytic concept of "splitting," or what Freud himself had preferred to call "dissociation," doubling, says Lifton,  is the means whereby an "opposing self" begins to replace portions of the "original self," in effect, usurping and overwhelming that original self from within. When this happens, we learn further, the opposing self is able to embrace evil doing without restraint, and even while the original self remains determinedly "good." Doubling, therefore, permits evil doers to avoid guilt, and thereby to live simultaneously at two utterly discrete and fully adversarial levels.