Evil is mesmerizing. As a culture, we are fascinated not with the best of ourselves, but with the worst. Books about serial killers, real and imaginary sell in huge numbers. Movies are populated with villains so twisted and brilliant that only other brilliant psychopaths can catch them. The airwaves are flooded with documentaries and, even, entire networks covering nothing but crime and punishment. On those occasions when a real, flesh-and-blood monster is captured amongst us, each new piece of information is unleashed on the public by reporters breathless with anticipation. Horrors pile upon horrors and we drink it all in. None of this is new, of course. Hangings were public spectacles through the nineteenth century. The Lindbergh kidnapping entranced a nation in the middle of the Depression. The exploits of Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger rivaled gangster movies for public attention. There is an irony in this, buried deep beneath the surface. The evil which attracts and repulses us simultaneously is all around us, in people so innocuous as to seem invisible, and we never recognize it. Perhaps it is time that we looked at both evil and ourselves more closely.
The debate over the existence of evil is as old as man and time. That discussion has twisted and bent in upon itself, woven through with questions of predestination and free will. Until now, it has largely been a question for theologians. Kevin Horrigan, a columnist for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, discussed evil in a 2005 column, writing that "classifying someone as evil involves a moral judgment, they say, not a scientific one" (B3). Psychiatrists, it seems, don't make moral judgments. They make diagnoses, and evil has never been a diagnosis.
Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist and professor at Columbia University wants to change that. He has devised a 22-point classification tool, a hierarchy, to determine whether or not a patient or inmate is evil, based on interviews with 500 violent criminals (Carrey 1). Dr. Stone further defined the extent of callousness in the people he has interviewed, saying, “’We are talking about people who commit breathtaking acts, do so repeatedly, who know what they’re doing, and are doing it in peacetime’” (Carey 1). These people, then, are neither hallucinatory nor manic. They do not “seem” evil, according to Dr. Stone, but they are.
Studying behavior and classifying people as evil could be seen as a waste of time. After all, by the time we recognize the existence of that evil in people, they have already committed atrocities. But, the people who argue that classifying evil has a place in forensic studies say that none of it is a waste. They argue that a deeper understanding of the true nature of evil may aid in registering its existence earlier (Carey 3). Dr. Stone, especially, notes that the recognition of evil necessitates the acceptance of a paradox: those who do great evil do so because they are so easily able...