The UNASSUMING Face of Evil

The gunsmoke had hardly cleared from the shootings at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas when Stephen Paddock’s brother was located. He registered his horror and disbelief. Personally, I won’t be surprised if others are found who register their horror and disbelief. I am not expecting many to come forward to report various clues from his past that should have served as warning. Those things seem so rare and that is what concerns me most.

What has impressed me with these mass killers is how ordinary they often seem to be. Ted Bundy was as engaging and charming a person as ever could be. To all outward appearances, Timothy McVeigh seemed normal. I don’t think I would pay him any mind in a crowd.

I remember watching a TV program, on the ID Channel I think, about pedophiles. One allowed a cameraman to follow him as he sought his targets. Again, I was impressed about how ordinary he seemed and how straightforward as he went about his dirtiest of businesses.

Adolf Eichmann was the commandant at Auschwitz. Like many other officials of the German National Socialist hierarchy, he was able to escape Germany as the Third Reich collapsed. And like many others, he went to South America where he took up residence in Argentina.

It was there that he was captured by Israeli agents and spirited out of the country in May 1960 to Israel to face trial for crimes against humanity. He was hanged two years later.

During the trial, Eichmann was kept in a bulletproof glass cage to protect him from assassination before justice could be served. Of the many witnesses, one woman, who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz, identified him as the overseer at the infamous death camp. As she walked past his enclosure, she fainted. Later, she said it was because of how ordinary he seemed. And ordinary he did seem. Pictures of him showed someone who looked to be even-tempered, quiet man of some low-profile profession, perhaps an accountant, a professor or a librarian.

I remember attending a lecture where the speaker noted that, in many ways, Eichmann was a ‘nice man.’ He got up in the morning, had breakfast, listened to the radio or read the newspaper, said goodbye to his wife and went to his office where he administered the business of killing 1.1 million people. I think he even had a dog. In the evening, he came home and ate. He repeated this for years. How do you reconcile those things?

Hannah Arendt, a prominent Jewish intellectual of the time, wrote a long piece about it called, “The Banality of Evil.” In it, she noted similar things. Many Jewish organizations were infuriated by it, yet it stands as a definitive observation.

Scholars and investigators scoured Eichmann’s background for hints at what might have driven him to participate in those horrors. They discovered sketches he’d made years before and seized on various details he included and didn’t include. So often you can infer what you want.

I am writing this on the second Thursday after the Las Vegas shootings. Details are few, even 11 days later, which is astonishing in and of itself. Other than the shooter’s brother, little has been unearthed. Now there are claims that he converted to Islam six months ago. Were there any tip-offs or was he just another seemingly completely ordinary person who just happened to engage in a massacre of historic proportions?

Further, what about all these people throughout history who have done appalling things? What explains Al Capone, Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy? Dahmer started by pulling the wings off flies—but what about the others? And they were small potatoes, for there are also the Final Solution, the Gulag, the Killing Fields, the Cultural Revolution, the Reign of Terror, etc.

And maybe it is time for scholars, psychologists and historians to admit that there is a something called evil in the world and there is no scientific way to predict who will descend into its pit. Just as prophets and theologians have said, we have to cultivate good to prevent evil. As the old American Indian said in the famous story, the one who wins is the one you feed. Secularists, I am sure, will object.

Everyone should realize that just as Stephen Paddock was an embodiment of evil, the incident also brought out the best of humanity—bravery, self-sacrifice, altruism, heroics and duty were all on display for us to praise. For every Eichmann, there was a Schindler. For every Stalin, there was a Solzhenitsyn. For every Robespierre, there was a Dante showing us the way to salvation. We achieve the Sistine Chapel as counterpoint to Auschwitz, so there is no need to despair over our humanity.

But everyone should look at this entire case and ratchet concern upward. The fact that we have an armed citizenry doesn’t frighten me. How many otherwise seemingly normal people are out there who could go in the same direction? That frightens me.

Beaman is an osteopathic family physician, a father of four and a grandfather of three.