October 26, 2010

An Open Door for Evil

Justin Katz

Even the most plain, factual description of Andrew Conley's murder of his kid brother is chillingly disturbing:

The teenager told police he choked his brother while they were wrestling until the boy passed out. He said he then dragged his brother into the kitchen, put on gloves and continued strangling him for at least 20 minutes.

He then put wrapped the boy’s head in two plastic bags. A coroner testified that Conner may have still been alive for minutes or hours after that point, Humphrey noted, but the bags helped suffocate him, and Conley repeatedly banged the boy’s head on the ground before loading him in the trunk of his car to make sure he was dead.

He then went along with his day, compounding the horror with his casual behavior.

As a parent, especially, the violation of warm images of home and basic trust in familial bonds leaves only one word capable of describing the act: Evil. Questions of insanity and premeditation are tangled, because the monster had previously expressed admiration for a fictional television serial killer but found the experience surreal and felt outside himself and unable to stop. In that regard, the case puts the lie to insanity as an excuse for the inexcusable; the perpetrator must be considered insane by definition, and to consider that as mitigation is to negate our ability to deal appropriately with... again... evil.

Clearly, the killer was not well. Surely, the images and plots that gave form to his illness help to spread the blame to the parents who allowed them to infect their home, to the people and industry that produces them, and to the broad society that creates a market for destructive filth. If that society is to be substantively free, the slow, dispersed culmination of evil must be tolerated until it sharpens in the hands of a depraved person and a criminal act. But is that clinical assessment sufficient?

Columnist Ron Rosenbaum recently touched on similar thoughts for First Things. Writing about the West Cumbria killer dubbed "Psycho-Cabbie":

... one could see Derrick "simmering with rage and paranoia" and perhaps even the dread low self-esteem, too. But we are all simmering to some extent. And yet: Murdering his twin in cold blood and then driving over to his solicitor's house and shotgunning him in bed, too? Are these bad choices psychogenically determined, organically inevitable? Crimes just waiting to happen if we’d had a proper brain scan to warn us? Or are they evil? Can we utterly eliminate the fact that he had a choice, that he made a choice, and that it was an evil choice? Or do we just look at his brain scan posthumously for the real trigger? And what do we make of the nine further killings that morning, and of the dozen or so attempts that left several critically wounded? ...

... [After his initial, pre-motivated murders] virtually every time he saw anyone—a person with whom he did not have any kind of psychogenic, emotional, legal relationship—he chose evil, more and further evil, until he totaled a dozen dead victims and then shot himself. He was in a world of utter freedom offered by the fact that he could not become any more morally or legally culpable than he already was. He was free to be as evil as he wanted to be. He could have shot himself after the first three, but he chose to blast open the faces of a dozen or so more, nine of them fatally.

The problem that Rosenbaum doesn't entirely resolve is that externalizing evil — whether as a series of biological or psychological triggers or as a demonic force — tends to complicate our sense of how to handle those who become its instruments. "If we are not free to choose evil," he concludes, "we are not free to refuse it," and the court psychologist might argue that, as a matter of law, society cannot fully punish those who were not free to resist the impulse toward their crimes.

At least with the notion of evil as a spiritual force, we can blame the perpetrator for "leaving the door open." With modern concepts of agency, even that degree of culpability is not as available. Who opened the door by which evil approached Indiana's fratricidal teen? And to the degree that evil takes the form of illness (psychological, biological, or both), blame seems less a matter of the active opening of a door than of the passive failure to close it.

Which is to say that all of the tools that have accrued to the modern intellect remain unable to address, and may in fact exacerbate our comprehension of, the evil to which our species has proven prone. Leave it thus: He who submits to evil must be punished for his acts in the body, even while redemption remains possible, spiritually. Those who cleared the path for evil should contemplate long and seriously their culpability. And the rest of us should make it our life's work to counter evil with good.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

"Leave it thus: He who submits to evil must be punished for his acts in the body, even while redemption remains possible, spiritually"

Well stated.

As the years progress, and I'm witness to more and more brutality I've become certain that some, for lack of a better word, supernatural force takes a person over, and that person, who probably through their own willful acceptance of evil left the door open, then acts on the impulses derived from an outside source.

Posted by: michael at October 26, 2010 7:36 AM

I would have to agree with your assessment, insanity doesn't negate 'evil' actions. It might call for modifications to the prescribed punishment, though, especially if permanent rehabilitation is possible.

I was once on medication (to help quit smoking, of all things) that put me into a classic psychosis. All of the sudden, this normally well-articulated, gentle, fun-loving guy became a paranoid, violent, raving maniac. Subtract the meds, and I'm back to normal. It was an enlightening, yet horrifying experience. I guess I'm lucky that I didn't do anything too crazy when that happened. I also know a few folks who are violent, paranoid, raving maniacs unless they're medicated, but a pill keeps them totally sane and productive. They're certainly not 'evil'. I do think they would understand being held accountable for the things they did when they 'skipped their meds'.

Posted by: mangeek at October 26, 2010 8:10 AM

Sin and sickness are one in the same. They are the manifestations of adversarial spirits. Evil preys where God is missing, or where Faith is broken. Both can be defeated in the Spirit of atonement and unquestionable faith in the only Redeemer. Neither sin nor sickness are acceptable in spirit nor in the flesh and they must be fought on both fronts.

Posted by: George at October 26, 2010 11:26 AM

Also, this is a bit odd, but I have known a -lot- of demented murderers over the years.

The kid who bludgeoned his girlfriend to death in a Barrington driveway? I went to school with him.

The killer who was caught with a bag of sawed-off human hands on the Braga bridge? I knew him from school, he dropped out and I took his place, but his girlfriend was in my class, so he dropped by a few times.

The 'carjacking murders' when that couple in front of the Arcade downtown was taken to Johnston and executed? I used to buy the people who did that coffee because they were homeless drug addicts and I took pity on them (until they went homicidal, that is).

All of these people were definitely 'mentally ill', but there was 'evil' to their actions. I don't know how to put my finger on it, but you could 'sense the evil' behind their actions. I'm sure folks with jobs like Michael's get very good at quickly determining if someone is just having a breakdown or if they're malevolent.

Posted by: mangeek at October 26, 2010 3:29 PM

Christopher Hightower was my manager at Newport Creamery in Dartmouth Mall one summer. A few years later we both worked in the Swansea Mall (for different employers) and had many brief, small-talk, conversations.

When he surfaced as a triple-murderer about six years later, I wasn't shocked at all. I can't say I "sensed" the evil, but I knew the guy was far from right.

Posted by: George at October 26, 2010 5:23 PM

I sometimes wonder about "mentally ill", is it just a measure of our understanding? Not so long ago, gays were classified as "mentally ill". Is a "kleptomaniac" mentally ill? Or, is it just "thrill seeking" or "something for nothing"? Is "road rage" a mental disorder? Or, is it just inconsiderate behavior? There is always a push to get things declared a "mental illness". If you can get it listed in the DSM, insurance will pay for "treatment". I have often wondered wether serial killers are "mentally ill", or if they just enjoy things that others consider abhorrent. The same might be said of people who are into B&D. I noticed an ad on Craig's List a few days ago. Someone was selling their bondage & discipline equipment because it "no longer fits in with my lifestyle". I did wonder if it was a "sting".

We all knew school yard bullies. Were they "mentally ill"? Did they "out grow" it, or did they just learn to sublimate it.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at October 26, 2010 6:21 PM

mangeek-the guy with the bag of hands was a friend of my son's from middle school days and he used to come to my house-he was a very ordinary,unremarkable kid.My son had some other friends who wound up dead or in prison and I wasn't surprised-actually the worst one never got in trouble as far as I know-you can't always tell.He'll probably wind up in the General Asembly.

Posted by: joe bernstein at October 26, 2010 8:46 PM

Las declaraciones del Ministro, que reproduce el Sr. COMPLEJitos en su blog, son un paradigma de corrección política. Por uno lado, reconocemos que la sanción es algo inherente, una faceta más, del sistema educativo, pero después indicamos que no debe tratarse nunca de sanciones pasadas de estilo. Muy bien, Sr. Ministro, y ¿cuál es el estilo correcto?.

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