Tuesday, February 08, 2005

THE NEW YORK TIMES has an article on what it presents as a trend in the psychiatric community to use the word "evil" as a label for criminal acts of particular savagery. I find myself less interested in asking myself whether a real-life Dean Koontz character is "evil" or merely "disturbed" than I am in asking myself why the issue is being raised at this moment in time. It seems a curious coincidence to me that a debate about the appropriateness of choosing the word "evil" to describe sadistic psychopathic criminals is occurring at a time when our leaders are using that very same word to describe those nations and societies with whom we are in conflict. Ronald Reagan used the term "evil empire" in reference to one country; now we have a president who uses the term "axis of evil" to refer to an entire list of countries, with the option to add more at any time. A country's leaders set the tone for the culture and sensibilities of any society; America's current leader openly embraces a vision of the world as being divided into forces of good and forces of evil. Innumerable times we have been told that one cannot negotiate or compromise with terrorists, or explain their actions in terms of rational human motivation, because they are evil and thus are beyond explanation or understanding. In the Times article, we are presented with these thoughts from Dr. Michael Stone, a noted forensic psychiatrist who is on the staff at Columbia University:

We are talking about people who commit breathtaking acts, who do so repeatedly, who know what they're doing, and are doing it in peacetime" under no threat to themselves. ...

Meaning the same acts committed in the context of war would not be evil. Dr Stone continues:

"We know from experience who these people are, and how they behave," and it is time, he said, to give their behavior "the proper appellation."

So what does this mean for the discipline of psychology, which is totally about understanding human behavior and motivation, if particularly heinous criminal acts come to be viewed as "evil" and therefore not subject to any need to comprehend or explain?

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