Evil more frightening when ordinary

By Leonard Pitts

“Smiling faces show no traces of the evil that lurks within.”
— from a song by the Undisputed Truth

Did you search for murder in Dennis Rader’s eyes?

I certainly did. He looked disheveled and disgruntled, as anyone might in his or her mug shot. But did you see anything else? An unsettling gleam like the one in Charles Manson’s eyes? The remote coldness that lurks in Theodore Kaczynski’s? Did you see murder in Rader’s eyes?

It’s a judgment call, of course, but I didn’t. He looked like Joe Blow’s cousin, a fat, balding white guy of late middle age, the kind of person you’d pass a million times on the street without registering that he was there.

Hence, the shock that came when police in Wichita, Kan., announced on Feb. 26 that he is BTK — the initials stand for Bind, Torture, Kill — architect of a murder spree that has claimed 10 lives and terrorized Kansans since 1974.

Rader, we are told, was the very epitome of ordinary. He was a 59-year-old Boy Scout leader, a married father, council president of the Lutheran Church he has attended for more than 25 years and a compliance inspector for suburban Park City, where he was in charge of, among other things, animal control.

And yet, if police are correct, it was all a fraud, his suburban respectability a mask for a killer who hid in plain sight, taunting authorities as he did his bloody work.

It’s a profile that, I think, brings us face to face with what the writer Hannah Arendt meant when she subtitled her treatise on the Holocaust “a report on the banality of evil.” Point being that we tend to think of evil as something outside ourselves, something other than human. We regard it as an exotic, terribly obvious thing that announces itself with devil’s horns and malicious leers, something you see coming a mile away.

But evil is more ordinary than that.

Think of all the perpetrators of the Holocaust whose names were not Hitler, Himmler or Eichmann — ordinary shopkeepers, farmers and housewives who simply averted their eyes, chanted the slogans, allowed themselves to be swept up in fervor and in doing so went along with the extermination of a people.

Think of the famous experiment Stanley Milgram conducted in 1963. He told his subjects they were administering electrical shocks to an unseen victim whose “sufferings” — screams and grunts — could be heard on an intercom. Milgram found that most people would keep shocking the unseen person, even administering what they were told were dangerous levels of voltage, if instructed to do so by an individual in authority.

Think of Damien Stiffler. He was a 3-year-old in Blythe, Calif. Police say that one day in 2000, his sister and a cousin, ages 6 and 5, got it in their heads to kill him. One of them, they decided, would sit on his legs, while the other would hold a pillow over his face. A willful murder, carried out by children of kindergarten age.

Finally, think of Abu Ghraib, the notorious prison in Iraq where ordinary American soldiers became torturers and brutalizers and no one thought to say no. Or even remembered that this was wrong.

When we look into Dennis Rader’s eyes for murder, then, I think what we’re really looking for is reassurance, something that says he is different from us somehow, fundamentally foreign in some way to our ordinary lives. The alternative is unsettling, suggesting as it does that humanity is a skin we slip out of all too easily and civilization a conceit in which one would be wise not to repose too much faith.

That alternative requires you to wonder what is the difference between him and us, where is the turning point, the dividing line, the border a human being must cross in order to become a monster. You look for answers in Dennis Rader’s eyes and all you see is Joe Blow staring back at you.

And you realize: It would be frightening if you saw murder there. But it’s even more frightening that you don’t.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com