Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

May 6th, 2008:

Josef Fritzl, Evil, and Dumb Luck

Most of you have probably heard by now of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian psychopath who created a custom dungeon under his home, kept his daughter a prisoner there for 24 years, and sired seven children by her. I haven't been this disturbed by a crime since the boggling case of John Wayne Gacy, right here in NW metro Chicago, who tortured, murdered and then buried 33 young men under his house back in the 1970s.

Like it or not, crimes like this prompt one to ask an ugly question: If evil like this is possible, why are we still here? Why are we not already extinct? (Those who have studied the history of the 20th Century might say it was a very near thing.) I have a theory, though I admit it's a little thin to hang the future of humanity on: It's difficult to be brilliant and evil at the same time. Evil as we define it generally comes with limitations, primarily the limitation of not being able to see yourself and your own situation very clearly.

Right Men (as described by A. E. Van Vogt and Colin Wilson) are the best example: They just cannot conceive of the possibility that they are wrong. A huge number of Right Men thus never get very far in life. We see through them easily, recognize them as egomaniacal psychopaths, and do our best to avoid them. They have a bad habit of getting injured or killed in conflicts with others. Even when they somehow succeed in society to a degree, they are almost invariably humbled at some point, which is unbearable to them and often causes them to die young.

This is a good thing for us, as truly brilliant evil is extremely dangerous. What most “ordinary” evil people (like Fritzl) have that isn't often remarked upon is simple, dumb, statistical luck. Most criminals get caught eventually, and the worse their crimes are, the more likely they are to get caught. Some vanishingly rare few end up skating past justice for years and years (like Fritzl), and we only see a couple per century who are so lucky that they end up in command of armies. (Think Hitler, Mao, and Stalin.)

There are a lot of Fritzls out there. Most try evil things and get caught very quickly; you see them on the news all the time with their coats over their heads. Some get by for awhile, through a combination of luck and unusual intelligence. Only a handful are lucky enough to get away with the sort of depravity that John Wayne Gacy or Josef Fritzl got away with. Choosing an easily concealable form of evil is part of that luck, and sometimes there is a lot of cunning hard work involved. (Like creating a custom dungeon with flush toilets in the basement, or burying 33 bodies under your house without stinking up the neighborhood. I still don't entirely understand how Gacy managed that.)

As for where individual evil itself comes from, I think (against all political correctness) that it's primarily genetic. We're born along a bell curve, with Mother Teresa on one end and Stalin on the other. The optimist in me would like to think that the curve is biased toward the good. But whether or not we're evenly distributed across that bell curve, good and evil as success strategies are not symmetrical. Good is outward-looking, cooperates with others, and is generally supported by society as a whole. Evil handicaps itself in various ways. (Read Colin Wilson's A Criminal History of Mankind for hundreds of pages of examples.) Evil overestimates its chances, isolates itself, picks fights, and operates within a seriously distorted view of reality. This is fortunate, otherwise we'd long be extinct. But every now and then an evil individual gets catastrophically lucky, and we witness crimes that make us gasp. Given the huge number of moving parts in our seriously overstuffed world, this is inevitable, and the real astonishment, perhaps, lies in the fact that evil remains as rare as it is.