What makes a man walk into a crowded theater and shoot unsuspecting moviegoers?
What makes a college football coach protect a pedophile and child rapist?
These two questions might seem unrelated. Indeed, some will surely find the idea of discussing a domestic terrorist like James Holmes in the same breadth as legendary football coach Joe Paterno unfair, inflammatory, perhaps even malicious.
And yet, when I read the newspapers this week, which featured stories about both these men and the tragic legacies they leave left behind, I couldn’t help but notice a connection.
To be sure, Holmes and Paterno are two very different men. Holmes is a sick individual who executed a well-orchestrated plot to kill as many innocent people as possible. Whether or not he’s evil or crazy, had one primary motive or several, doesn’t make much of a difference, practically speaking. To quote Michael Caine’s Alfred from The Dark Knight: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” (Alfred, incidentally, was referring to Heath Ledger’s The Joker, who apparently was Holmes’s inspiration.)
Not long ago, Joe Paterno was considered by many to be not just a sports hero but a role model, admired (worshipped even) both inside the Penn State campus and beyond. That’s certainly not the case today. Admittedly, Paterno is not as worthy of contempt as Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach who molested and raped dozens of young boys over many years (and who was recently found guilty of 45 counts of child sex abuse). Unlike Sandusky, Paterno didn’t actually abuse any children — not directly. But when he was first informed of Sandusky’s behavior back in 1998, Paterno met his legal responsibility to report it to school administrators, but never notified the police. Moreover, in emails obtained by former FBI director Louis Freeh’s investigation of the case, one gets the sense that Paterno was more concerned with loyalty to his friend, and the reputation of Penn State football, than the humanity of Sandusky’s victims. His actions resulted in the cover-up of unspeakable crimes. It resulted in the cover-up of evil.
In both these cases, disimilar though they maye be, two men made decisions which not only led to tragic consequences, but which inflicted unnecessary suffering upon helpless victims. The results of their actions will have traumatic, life-altering consequences not only for those directly affected, but for their family members and friends for years to come. Not to mention the cultural and fiscal impact their actions will have on American movie-going culture, and Penn State football culture, respectively.
Holmes and Paterno may have done a great deal of good in their lives — and indeed, Paterno still has many fans and supporters — but there’s no denying that their legacies have been significantly tarnished by the stain of evil.
“But hold on,” some of you might say. “You’re going too far. Shouldn’t we say that Holmes is evil (or just plain crazy), whereas Paterno made a poor, perhaps even cowardly decision? Yes, Paterno should have done more to protect Sandusky’s victims — but unlike Holmes, he’s not a monster. He’s not evil. Isn’t it unfair to equate the two?”
Let me reiterate: I’m not equating the two cases, nor are Holmes’s and Paterno’s crimes on par with each other, legally or ethically. One man gave direct expression to evil, while the other served as an accomplice to it. However, Holmes is most likely a schizophrenic (several of my medical friends speculate as much, and the condition begins to manifest itself in young men in their early- to mid-20s). This by no means excuses his actions, but it could partially explain what might have led to them. As far as we know, Paterno was neither schizophrenic nor mentally ill — so then why did he knowingly protect a child rapist? And if Paterno wasn’t crazy, if he was of sound mind and body, shouldn’t he be held more culpable for his actions than Holmes for his? After all, he can’t plead insanity.
Needless to say, this isn’t about trying to determine which of these men is more “evil” than the other. I don’t believe that anyone is fundamentally “evil”; unlike the cartoonish villains in certain movies and comic books, no one in real life behaves in an evil way all the time. (Even fascist dictators have had friends and family members who loved them, while serial killers have been known to perform acts of kindness on occasion.)
Evil isn’t a persistent character trait; rather, as psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen insists, evil is what results when there is a dangerous lack of empathy between one person or group and another. This lack of empathy can have a physiological basis (the byproduct of bad wiring in the brain), or it can have a conditional basis (the byproduct of one’s family, social or cultural environment). Empathy is what allows you to put yourself in another person’s shoes, to feel their pain, to see them as a human being — just like you.
People who lack empathy because of bad brain wiring are commonly categorized as sociopaths or psychopaths. Although the jury’s still out, Holmes would seem to fall squarely into that category.
People who lack empathy because they’ve been conditioned to lack empathy (by culture or social environment) — well, that’s a much bigger category, because under the right circumstances, all of us can potentially fall into it. Just like Joe Paterno did.
By choosing to protect Sandusky, Paterno failed to extend empathy to Sandusky’s victims — indeed, he failed to see them as victims. Loyalty, friendship, and the culture of Penn State football, blinded him to their humanity, or at least placed it at a significantly lower value. This dehumanizing process that weakens empathy, and places certain goals above human decency, is how nations and groups (from “civilized countries” to the Catholic Church) are able to convince otherwise good people to go along with horrendous policies: from committing genocide to covering up sexual abuse.
In short: empathy is what keeps evil at bay.
We may never know what drove James Holmes to walk into a screening of The Dark Knight Rises and enact his twisted fantasy of murder and mayhem. The speculation will no doubt be endless — and most likely unsatisfying. In his lectures on Shakespeare’s Othello, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued that what spurs Iago to destroy Othello is nothing more or less than “motiveless malignity.” That to me is still the best definition of pure evil I know of. Some forms of evil defy post-hoc rationalization. Some people don’t need motives to inflict cruelty. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
We also may never know what drove Joe Paterno to engage in a cover-up that protected a pedophile and prolonged the agony of dozens of children. And Paterno, who passed away in January, is no longer able to defend himself (though at least he’s been spared from witnessing the virtual decimation of his legacy). But Paterno’s case does deserve our speculative attention, not merely to assign blame, but also to recognize that Joe’s error is one that, given the right conditions, we all could commit, though perhaps not all of us would commit it to the same degree. Or at least we hope not.
I believe that Joe Paterno was mostly a good man. A good husband, a loving father, an outstanding coach. But unfortunately (for himself and others), he made a series of terrible decisions that showed a profound lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims — a lack of empathy that made him an accomplice to evil.
Whether these decisions should define Paterno’s legacy is up for debate. (Sadly for Paterno’s fans, there’s a good chance they will. To quote Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them;/ The good is oft interred with their bones.”)
However, one thing seems clear: evil takes many forms, and makes its way into the world along many paths. Some forms of evil are so perverted, so morally reprehensible, they require the mind of a psychopath. But sometimes, all that’s required is a lack of empathy… and just looking the other way.