James Holmes And Joe Paterno: A Tale Of Two Evils

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. TC mark


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  • guest

    Beautifully written. The point about empathy with regards to Sandusky’s victims was particularly poignant.

  • http://www.itmakesmestronger.com/2012/07/james-holmes-and-joe-paterno-a-tale-of-two-evils/ Only L<3Ve @ ItMakesMeStronger.com

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  • Neil Allen

    There is no question in my mind that Holmes was raped as a child. It ruins a child’s mind when they are raped, especially by a Catholic priest. They see evil everywhere, and see that no one cares about them.

    • Dana

      My mother was abused repeatedly as a child and she has never hurt anyone. She has had nothing but love for my 3 siblings and I, it depends how a person deals with it.

  • Jake

    Very well written and interesting viewpoint. I wish we could figure out what drove these people to do what they did. As far as people being evil I think you’re right. No one is born that way, but molded into the piece of trash they become.

  • Christine X.

    Clear-headed. But we can’t easily discount the conditional impacts on Holmes’ loss of empathy–as in, there was a loss and not just a lack of one. I am inclined to believe there are larger, structural reasons that forced his detachment from people.

  • ariel

    interesting read. you have to be very careful though with the term ‘a schizophrenic’.
    people living with schizophrenia are more likely to be the victim of violence than the perpetrator. throwing out those diagnostic labels, without knowing someone’s mental health status for certain, especially in terrible, tragic, violent circumstances like this one contributes to the stigma surrounding mental illness.

    • deb

      Excellent point Ariel and you are right it only further stigmatizes severe mental illness…

      • http://www.twitter.com/davemcm David

        Ariel — you make an excellent point. And it’s true that the majority of people who suffer from schizophrenia and mental illness aren’t violent. I’m certainly not trying to stigmatize people with mental illness. My main point was that you don’t have to be mentally ill to do something morally reprehensible/evil (since Joe Paterno, as far as we know, wasn’t). But of course, the corollary is also true: just because you suffer from mental illness doesn’t mean you will do something violent or morally reprehensible. And you’re right, it’s important to remember that.

    • David

      Ariel — you make an excellent point. And it’s true that the majority of people who suffer from schizophrenia and mental illness aren’t violent. I’m certainly not trying to stigmatize people with mental illness. My main point was that you don’t have to be mentally ill to do something morally reprehensible/evil (since Joe Paterno, as far as we know, wasn’t). But of course, the corollary is also true: just because you suffer from mental illness doesn’t mean you will do something violent or morally reprehensible. And you’re right, it’s important to remember that.

  • deb


  • watts

    i’m gonna be that guy and say its unfair to bring paterno into this, and certainly into a comparison with holmes. i may be wrong, but i thought that when the sandusky thing started paterno heard about it from rumors that were going around but didn’t actually know for sure if it was true or not. i also thought he reported what he heard to the penn state athletic director, like he was supposed to, but didn’t do anything else. to me, theres not much wrong with that, all he did was give his friend the benefit of the doubt when it came to what must have sounded like a ridiculously far fetched rumor at the time. i mean, if you heard a rumor that one of your good friends was secretly raping small children, would you automatically believe the rumor and turn on and accuse your friend? again, that was just what i heard when the scandal first came out, and i haven’t kept up with it very much sense, so its very possible that new details emerged that make what i heard irrelevant.

  • http://Twitter.com/Johnny5646 John Hillegass

    Like those before me I want to congratulate you on a very well written piece. However, I disagree with your characterization of James Holmes and Joe Paterno as two kinds of “evil”.
    I believe it is too easy to disconnect ourselves from our darker impulses and emotions by quickly rationalizaing horrific acts such as the Penn State abuse cover up or the Aurora shooting as “evil” and therefore out of the realm of possibility for the rest of us.

    We cannot imagine anyone and especially ourselves ever succumbing to our darker side and therefore we pretend it can never happen. But it can and it does.
    After a murder or shooting the neighbors and friends always invariably describe the person as a normal person. Someone who you would never suspect of committing a horrific act. However, after a few days or weeks the memories change and the people begin to claim that something was off or we always knew there was something wrong with him/her.
    By disavowing evil, be they thoughts or actions, from our personal and collective psyche we blissfully and ignorantly believe we are protected.
    Yet, the monsters of this world are always our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, cousins, friends, or even ourselves.
    We are not protected. We are not immune.
    In order to face evil we first must recognize it in ourselves and in our loved ones.
    Thankfully, for the majority of the population, evil does not manifest itself on a regular basis. Most have learned to control or ignore their “evil” desires. But just as everyone has some “good”, they also contain “evil”.
    By claiming James Holmes was simply “evil” we deny any responsibility on his part and our own. Being “evil” divests someone of their responsibility because they are no longer considered fully human.
    We must take the blame personally, collectively, and as a society for our actions and inactions that have allowed this “evil” to occur.
    We must ask ourselves why a member of our family (proverbial or human or communal or whatever) has felt so much pain, why have they felt so disconnected, why did no one see any warning signs? We cannot simply say James Holmes was evil because we allowed him to be evil. We made him evil.
    In order to stop more evil from happening we must ask ourselves how and why we let this happen.

    Below is a quote from an article from Slate.com that I read earlier today called, “Not Here: If we’re truly serious about stopping massacres like Aurora, we need to cure our addiction to evil” that talks about this same question in a much more eloquent manner.

    “Were we serious—truly serious—about making the civil massacre disappear, having it become, like the amok, nothing more than an antiquated curiosity, the history of the amok tells us precisely what to do: divest evil of its grandiosity or mythic resonance by completely banalizing it.”


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  • http://ashesandstars.wordpress.com ashesandstars

    Reblogged this on Notes from the in-between.

  • http://ashesandstars.wordpress.com ashesandstars

    amazingly written, your views on evil and empathy really gave me something to think about.

  • Alison

    Excellent article. Not only was this clarifying of how these two distinctly different men acted, but you also painted a picture of where true evil in this world comes from. Great read, keep up the good work!

  • AngieJ

    Excellent article. As you pointed out most people with schizophrenia aren’t psychopathic murderers – I suspect mental illness coupled with a series of events turned Holmes into the murderer he is. Couple that with the ability to purchase 6000 rounds of ammo in 2 months on the Internet and you’re cooking up a recipe for disaster. I love how you compared the two evils – though different, the pain they caused and will cause for years to come is immense.

  • Paul

    You idiot. Paterno DID report the initial incident to his superiors. There was no coverup, but I do agree that he made a bad depiction-no doubt about it. You are yet again, the perfect example of a media driven journalist who will only right what people will read and not the truth. And he DID admit he wished he done more, still,he was the only one who had taken any responsibility. Shame on you for even bringing a dead mans name into an article that compares him to a mass murder.

  • Guest

    Well written, however to clarify a major error (I don’t support joe Paterno but it bothers me whenever people make this mistake), Joe Paterno did report it to Schult and Curley who are the head of police since Penn State is it’s own jurisdiction. That is why Schultz and Curley are being charged and Paterno wasn’t.

    • http://twitter.com/DaveMcM David McMillan (@DaveMcM)

      You make a fair point. Though Schult and Curley were also quite invested in protecting the reputation of Penn State and Penn State football (and the enormous revenue it generated). So the truth about Sandusky essentially stayed “within the boy’s club.” REAL action would’ve involved alerting the outside authorities, since Sandusky’s actions were criminal (nor merely ethical/school violations). But you’re right: Paterno wasn’t the only person who engaged in a cover-up. Schult and Curley’s actions were just as contemptible (dare I say evil?) as well.

      • http://twitter.com/DaveMcM David McMillan (@DaveMcM)

        *Schultz and Curley

  • http://chelseamize.wordpress.com chelseamize

    This is brilliant and the Shakespeare references are very fitting. Like Iago (and Aaron from Titus Andronicus, for that matter) Holmes is particularly horrifying because it is impossible to relate to him. Normal people can’t wrap their brains around evil for evil’s sake. Such “motiveless malignity” is impossible for us to comprehend, making the evil actions all the more devastating. An incredibly poignant and very thought-provoking piece.

    I will end with a kitschy (but particularly relevant) reference. To quote Mean Girls:
    “There are two kinds of evil people in this world. Those who do evil stuff and those who see evil stuff being done and don’t try to stop it.”

  • Rick

    This is disgusting and ridiculous.To compare a man who’s role in a sex abuse scandal is still not fully known to one who went into a crowded theater and massacred 12 people is nuts. If you want to compare someone to James Holmes, use Jerry Sandusky. Paterno seems to be an easy fall guy and it’s idiotic. The amount of people that failed in the Penn State situation is astounding yet you pin it all on one man whom the evidence against is murky at best. By blaming Paterno you’re diminishing the victims by not actually blaming the man who committed the crime. I can’t believe this site ran this garbage.

    • Jones

      Thank god someone has the right mindset. This article is absolutely bogus. I would delete my name from this article-too much credit that you WOUDLNT want. disgusting.

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