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The Political Psychology of Evil

C. Fred Alford
Professor of Government
University of Maryland
Fifty-eight subjects were interviewed about their concepts of evil. They include students,
retirees, white collar workers, and 18 prison inmates. Many defined evil not as a moral
category but as an experience of impending doom. This definition reflects and affects how
many subjects experience evil as an ethical problem, leading them to privatize
evilexperiencing it in terms of their own terror. Many have considerable difficulty
connecting this experience with issues of morality and goodness. An education about evil
must respectfully confront this private dimension. The same conclusion applies to how we
study evil on a larger scale, such as the Holocaust. This is revealed by subjects responses,
some quite troubling, to questions about the Nazis.
KEY WORDS: evil; Holocaust; prison inmates; ethics; morality
There is not a lot of research on the political psychology of evil. Or perhaps
there is, it is just not called that. Ervin Staubs The Roots of Evil: The Origins of
Genocide and Other Group Violence is a well-known and highly regarded excep-
tion to this generalization. For Staub (1989, p. 25), evil is not just a generic term
for very bad. It is strictly defined. The essence of evil is the destruction of human
beings, under which he includes psychological as well as physical obliteration.
Most, however, do not write about evil explicitly, even if that is what they
mean, at least by Staubs definition. But who could argue that works like Raul
Hilbergs The Destruction of the European Jews (1985) or Zygmunt Baumans
Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), are not about evil? But what is evil? Not all
destruction of human beings is evil. There are just wars, and justifiable homicides.
The term evil carries with it connotations that are not exhausted by terms like
bad, aggressive, destructive, and so forth. One anthropologist (Southwold,
1986, p. 131) argues that if we can substitute bad or immoral for the term evil
Political Psychology, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1997
0162-895X 1997 International Society of Political Psychology
Published by Blackwell Publishers, 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 108 Cowley Road, Oxford, OX4 1JF, UK.
without loss of meaning, then the termhas lost its resonance. Evil is a special quality
of badness.
What exactly is this quality? Hannah Arendt (1965) struggles with this
question in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. So does
Robert Jay Lifton (1986, p. 5), who opens his Nazi Doctors with a quote from a
survivor about the doctors: It is demonic that they were not demonic. Several
years ago I (1990) wrote The Organization of Evil, arguing that the compliance
theory is inadequate. Whatever evil is, it is not just going along with malevolent
authority. It is identifying with malevolent authority, finding pleasure and satisfac-
tion in joining with its destructiveness.
Is this what evil men want? Is this what evil is? These are, of course, two
different questions, one empirical, one conceptual, to be studied by two entirely
different methods, even if it is not entirely clear how to study the empirical
dimension. Ask people? Perform more experiments like those of Milgram (1974)
and Zimbardo (Haney, Banks & Zimbardo, 1973)? If, that is, a Human Subjects
Committee could be found somewhere that would allow it! In any case, the second
question should be easy enough. Just agree upon a definition.
Definitions are rules for language use, are they not? Let us agree and get on
with it. Nothing important hangs from the definition of evil, does it? Social
scientists are all good nominalists these days; the belief that a definition could or
should capture the essence of something was gone long before Wittgenstein got his
hands on that philosophical conceit.
Or perhaps it is not so simple. Perhaps these two questions (What do evil men
want? What is evil?) are related. Not identical, but related, so that we learn
something important about the reality of human evil by studying how people use,
and abuse, the term. Peter Winch (1958) would go further, using Wittgenstein to
argue that explaining human action is explaining the meaning of the concepts actors
use to explain their actions. Because human action is meaningful, not merely the
movement of bodies, we explain action by understanding how actors use terms to
describe their actions. We have understood all we can about an action when we
know all that an ideal native informant, fully conversant with the concepts of his
culture, could tell us about it. For example, to understand a banking transaction, it
is necessary and sufficient to understand the concepts involved, such as bank,
money, exchange, teller.
Winch goes too far. If he were correct, unconscious forces, as well as long-term
historical forces (indeed, any forces) of which the participants are unaware, could
not count as explanations. Nevertheless, Winch makes an important point. How
people understand a concept is not incidental to their actions falling under this
concept, but constitutive of it. This is particularly important when social scientists
use definitions that diverge from popular concepts, or when popular concepts have
depths of meaning of which neither the holder nor the social scientist is aware. At
issue is not unconscious meanings, but semiconscious ones, connotations falling
outside the penumbra of everyday use, but by no means inaccessible to reflection.
2 Alford
It is this reflection that was encouraged in my interviews with a variety of subjects
on how they understand the concept of evil.
As an academic, I understood evil as a moral and philosophical problem. Were
the men who made the Holocaust evil, or do we better understand them as human,
all too humanobedient to a fault? Does Hannah Arendts concept of the banality
of evil make sense, or is it an oxymoron? Is radical evil best seen in terms of Kants
concerns about self-serving morality, or in terms of the enormity of the deed? These
are issues an academic might expect informants to be wrestling withnot in these
terms, but in popular and recognizable variants.
But what an academic might expect is not what informants said. They talked
about concepts of evil more private and personal than I had ever imagined, more
widely shared too. It is this oxymoron we must come to terms with if we are to
understand the paradigm of evil that will be called pre-categorical. For some
informants, pre-categorical evil simply swamped all I had defined as evil. Whats
Hitler got to do with evil? Murders bad, so is war, but its not really evil, is it?
More than a few said things like this.
For most, however, pre-categorical evil was a separate dimension of evil, not
incompatible with moral evil, but belonging to a separate reality. This dimension
was apparent fromthe second interview, when Patricia D. defined evil as the feeling
she was losing herself, her separate identity, to her boyfriend. Whats that got to
do with evil? you might ask. When we figure that out, we shall understand much
about evil.
Throughout the interviews I listened for metaphors, images of evil, and the
most common was the most mundane. A dozen informants defined evil in terms of
the experience of going down into the basement as a kid, the feeling that something
dark and dangerous was about. The approach fostered this private and inward focus,
aimed as it was at elucidating informants feelings and beliefs. In effect, the
question was not Tell me about what is evil in the world (though this encom-
passed the first and third questions), but Tell me how you understand the concept
of evil in light of your experiences. Nevertheless, this inward focus was so
overwhelming it is hard to believe it was an artifact of the approach. Certainly I
observed it on the internet bulletin board on Evil, where the questions were
Spury F., the oldest informant, liberated Dachau as a young PFC. He remem-
bers corpses laid out as far as he could see, but his leading example of evil is
drowning some kittens as a child. Our task is to understand what it is about the
concept of evil that produces such private and personal responses. The key problem
with evil is howto connect this private and inward experience with the shared moral
world, so as to respect both the integrity of private experience and the reality of
shared moral experience.
The Political Psychology of Evil 3
Fifty-eight men and women were interviewed. Twenty men and 20 women
were among those who responded to advertisements placed in the campus news-
paper and Retirement World News. Aged 18 to 80, their demographic characteristics
are summarized in the appendix. In addition, I have been meeting weekly with a
group of inmates at a maximum security prison to discuss Concepts of Evil. We
have been meeting for six months; the research is ongoing.
All inmates are doing serious time; several are serving life sentences. The
prison program is aimed at inmates who need and can benefit from a program of
psychological remediation. This means, in effect, that, while troubled, they are
not psychopathic. Many have killed a relative or loved one: a mother, father,
brother, wife, child, or girlfriend. One beat a policeman severely; another tortured
and raped his teacher; still another raped a relative. Two committed nonviolent
offenses against property. Most are filled with remorse. Many joined the group to
come to terms with their own sense of being evil. Inmates perspectives on evil are,
in general, more rigidly held than those of other informants, but the content is not
very different. This is, it should be noted, nothing to be encouraged about.
Anumber of informants spoke of absolutely terrifying dreams that seemed not
like dreams at all, but real experiences, dreamlike states in which they would be
destroyed if they did not awaken. The dream itself is not important; important is
how it affects the dreamers concept of evil, which it does.
Alexa K., about 50, talked about a dream she had 20 years ago. Recently
separated fromher husband, she dreamt of a malevolent figure who would paralyze
and destroy her if she did not awaken. Who was he, I asked? You know who I
mean, she answered in a husky voice. The opposite one, the opposite of God.
At the last minute Alexa woke up and has been on her guard ever since.
Sally L. is about 25 years younger than Alexa. She too talked about a terrifying
Three times I dreamed it. A powerful force attacked me, like a demon. It
grabbed me around the neck, making weird mechanical sounds deep in its throat.
Slowly it turned toward me, until I could see its face. It was the grim reaper, with
a skull for a face. I knew I would die. And the pain. I was in bed, but it was no
dream. I know it was no dream. It was like a headache, only my pain was outside
my head, throbbing.
It sounds terrible, but why call it evil?
I thought you understood . . . It was, you know, weird, like the pain was
outside of me trying to get in.
4 Alford
Many talked about similar dreams. All were certain their dreams had to do with
evil, and none could explain the connection. No questions were asked about dreams.
In every case the informant originated the topic.
For Kara T. the dream had to do with a neighbor to whom she is attracted. He
comes to her, holds her in his arms, and suddenly begins to paw her, all the while
making strange, inarticulate noises from somewhere deep in his throat. He has
turned into a monster, Satan, with claws for hands. She dreamed the same dream
every week for a month.
Understanding an informants inner world so as to better understand his use
of the term evil is not about causal knowledge, what causes what. Coming
between sleep and wakefulness, sleep paralysis (said to affect 4%of the population)
often results in terrifying dreams that have the quality of reality and a content
frequently related to paralysis, such as being overcome by an alien force. Several
informants reported being sexually molested as children, but the memories were
distinct, not dreamlike (Siegel, 1992; Masson, 1984).
Causal explanations like these, even if true (and how could one know in any
particular case?), would miss the point. Understanding how people employ the
concept of evil means taking informants experiences seriously wherever they come
from. Experiences influence howwe use concepts, and it is the connection between
experience and concept that counts. Where the experience really comes from, if
it could be known, is not important from this perspective.
Not all precategorical experiences concerned dreams. Most concerned experi-
ences that seemed more real than reality. They were not always bad. Mary H.,
almost 60, talks like a whimsical teenager. A fewyears ago she visited the zoo, and
while looking at the monkeys, she twisted her neck sharply and felt a shock go to
her brain. In the moment in which she lost consciousness she had a beatific vision.
It was like a bowl of cottage cheese bathed in a golden light. Everything in
the world was there, everything. . . . Each curd was good or evil, but they were all
mixed up so you couldnt separate them. And the whole, even though there was
evil in it, was good. It was good. Ever since then Ive been more relaxed. I know
that no matter how much evil it contains, the universe is good.
Andrew lost his wife a few years ago. Now he drives an hour to attend another
church because he cannot enter the sanctuary where her memorial service was held.
Its like part of her is still there, I really cant explain it. This in response to a
question about how his religion helps him understand evil.
Adown-to-earth man not given to flights of fancy, Andrewspeaks about living
in London during the blitz. It was not the exploding bombs that got to him but the
silence of the buzz bombs (V-1 rockets) when they ran out of fuel. You knewthey
were going to fall, but for a moment it was just silence. Nothing. It was
strange, beautiful. Then you heard the explosion. This in response to a
question about having experienced evil. He could not explain the connec-
tion, but he could make it.
The Political Psychology of Evil 5
Why call these experiences precategorical? Because they are prior not just to
morality, but to the distinctions that make morality possible, including such basic
distinctions as self and other. Expressed in images and words, the experiences are
nevertheless preverbal. The precategorical is the realm of mimesis, a world of
mirrors, in which the outer world is experienced as deep inside, the inner world as
though it were part of the external. Like Sallys throbbing pain, located somewhere
between the surface of her body and infinity, the skin a semipermeable membrane.
Henry A. grew up in one of the worlds trouble spots. One day he went to the
market. Just as he was to go inside there was a tremendous explosion, and he was
thrown to the ground by the blast from a homemade bomb. Still dazed, he got up,
brushed himself off, and went inside, where he saw a dozen wounded people,
several dead or dying. It could have been me. If Id finished brushing my teeth
one minute earlier, it would have been me. One of the merchants was washing
away the blood from around his stall, and when Henry looked down he found
himself standing in a river of diluted blood flowing over his shoes. In the river he
could see the image of his faceonly, for a second, the image did not look like an
image: it looked like it really was his disembodied face, covered in blood.
In the precategorical experience of evil, the intensity of the experience dis-
solves normal distinctions between subject and object, inner and outer, so that for
a moment it looked to Henry like he had been killed or wounded, that he had been
inside, not outside. The experience is not simply that evil is bad and should be
contained. Rather, what is uncontained is itself experienced as evil because it is
uncontained, overwhelming, beyond limits. Not every uncontained experience is
evil, of course, only those in which the experience seems boundless, likely to
overwhelm the self in a tidal wave of emotion. Evil is that which threatens to
obliterate the self, overcoming its boundaries. This is what the informants were
D.W. Winnicott refers to the transitional object, such as the babys blanket,
which does more than represent the security of mother. It is mother, and at the same
time it is not. It is both, all at once, and only a fool would try to say it is really one
or the other. The whole point of the transitional object is that we suspend the laws
of noncontradiction for a moment, letting something be A and not-A at the same
time. Precategorical experience has the quality of a transitional object. It is a
transitional realm, self and non-self at the same time. Potential space, Winnicott
(1971, pp. 95103) calls it, the fount of all creativity, where we play with evil.
Though I have drawn upon a psychoanalytic concept to explain it (Ogdens
psychoanalytic account of the autistic-contiguous position [1989, pp. 4782] is also
apposite), precategorical experience is fundamentallya phenomenological concept:
that is, one concerned with our primordial experience of the world, how we must
experience it if we are to account for lacuna in more developmentally elaborated
experiences. In this sense it is akin to what Edmund Husserl (1973), founder of
phenomenology, calls prepredicative experience, experience on which all else is
predicated (Schutz, 1973, v.1, pp. 7982).
6 Alford
If precategorical experience makes no firm distinction between subject and
object, then what of categorical experience? Ponder Immanuel Kants founding act
of morality, the categorical imperative: Act as if the maxim of your action were
to become through your will a universal law of nature. You might want to lie in
order to get someone to loan you money. But what if your maxim lying is the best
policy became a universal law and everyone did it? The world would become hell
and you would be its first citizen. Though Kant denied its identity with the golden
rule, the idea is similar. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Consider what is involved in the categorical imperative. You must know
yourself as separate from other people, with your own interests and projects. If you
do not, there can be no conflict between your interests and theirs, all would have
the same desires, not merely for the same thing, but literally the same desires. While
separate and distinct fromothers, the holder of the categorical imperative must care
about others, not just about their behavior but about their inner worlds, so that you
can imagine them being like you but not you. They too feel pain and joy at many
of the same things you do, but not exactly the same things, and not exactly the same
pain and joy either. The other is separate, different, yet similar, so that you are
obligated to treat him with as much respect as you treat yourself.
The academic might argue that Kants categorical imperative is not properly
contrasted with the phenomenon of precategorical thought. By categorical Kant
means universally binding upon all; its opposite is not precategorical, but hypo-
thetical, provisional. Kant is a moral philosopher, concerned not with the origins
of experience, but how we must live if we are to regard ourselves as ethical beings.
In a word, the objection is that I am contrasting apples and oranges, even if one is
called pre-apples.
Seen from the perspective of the history of ideas, such an objection is correct, or
at least relevant. My argument is not, however, a play on the terms precategorical and
categorical. The argument is operational: what psychological operations, or distinc-
tions, must onebe able tomakeinorder toact morally?The answer is all thedistinctions
that are assumed as given and obvious in Kants categorical imperative. Precategorical
thought is properly contrasted with Kants categorical imperative if we recognize that
thecategorical imperativemakes manyassumptions about psychological development,
assumptions not operative under precategorical thought. Morality depends upon being
able to make basic distinctions between self and other, distinctions so obvious they are
oftenassumedtobegiven, availabletoall. Infact, theyaremade. Avoidingevil depends
upon how they are made.
Sometimes the opposite is arguedthat morality depends upon the ability to
identify with another so completely that the boundaries between self and world are
suspended, as in precategorical thought. But identification is not a good basis for
morality, because it as readily supports the opposite conclusion. Susan Smith, who
drowned her children, said she was really trying to kill herself, the New York Times
reported. If we save others to save ourselves, then we may kill themto kill ourselves
and torture them because we are tortured.
The Political Psychology of Evil 7
I just had to let someone knowhowbad I felt, said one inmate who murdered
twice. In one way or another, half a dozen inmates said the same thing, murder
becoming a type of perverse communication, or rather a perverse trading of places
(Now it was his turn to feel dead), as though psychic state and external reality
were one. Morality respects boundaries, finding a place for the other outside the
boundaries that define me, but inside the boundaries that define the human world
we both share. This realization is what the categorical imperative is about, even if
we do not agree that it is the best formulation of this insight.
The mere existence of pre-categorical thought is not striking: All art depends
on it. What is striking is howthe dread carried in precategorical thought may isolate
it in the mind so that it becomes impervious to categorical reflectionthat is,
morality. Creating a two-way traffic flow between dread and morality may lessen
evil, but only if we can find the symbols to embody our dread. In the absence of
symbolization, evil gets lodged in the body, acted out rather than expressed in more
abstract, less destructive forms.
Evil is a feeling of doom, the feeling we get when we depart fromGods law
is howMr. Caine put it, capturing the psychologic perfectly backwards, perfectly
because this is just how the mind works, confusing the experience of doom with
evil. Actually evil is the defense against doom, as though by inflicting doom on
others, we could rid ourselves of evil, as though doom were a concrete thing that
could be moved from place to place, preferably with a gun.
Most noninmate informants had strong precategorical experiences of evil, in
which normal distinctions between self and world, inner and outer, part and whole,
were suspended. Far fewer inmates did. Many could hardly understand the experi-
ence. Thats just insane! said Ms. Ball when she heard the story of Henry, who
saw his face covered with blood. Few noninmate informants were so quick to
dismiss the experience. The difference points the way to understanding evil.
The inmates live in a highly controlled world, traveling between prison
buildings by tunnels. Even the outdoor recreation area feels like a tunnel, sur-
rounded by prison buildings. On the floor in the tunnels is a line down the center,
like a highway. During busy periods inmates must walk to the right, and keep their
hands to themselves. Bars divide the long tunnels into corridors. In such a controlled
world, one might expect the inmates to dreamof freedom. Perhaps they do, but they
do not talk about it. They talk about controlling their dreams, the only informants
who did.
Evidently the practice is widespread, inmates working hard in the minutes (or
hours?) before sleep trying to structure their dreams, so they dreamabout what they
will. If this does not work, as it frequently does not, they interpret their dreams as
though they could control them in retrospect. Mr. Deacon kept dreaming he was
being chased over a cliff by a faceless man. I know now that it was me, he said.
I just couldnt face myself. His interpretation is not necessarily wrong, but
consider his need for control, containing and restraining the precategorical imagi-
nation even in sleep, even in retrospect, via interpretation. The prison restrains
8 Alford
inmates bodies, so they might become authoritarians over their own minds. Or so
it sometimes seems.
Not every inmate is so controlled. For months after his partner in the drug trade
was murdered, Mr. Beaty saw his ghost in the basement of the townhouse they had
shared, the basement where they stored their drugs. Sometimes the ghost seemed
to speak to Mr. Beaty, telling him to find another line of work. Prison saved me.
Without it Id be dead by now. Maybe Joe [the ghost] turned me in. There is more
moral promise (as yet unrealized) in Mr. Beatys dream experience than a hundred
homilies to virtue, or a dozen moral imperatives.
Was Adolf Eichmann evil? He didnt kill anyone, but he orchestrated the
murder of millions. Doesnt that make him evil? Most said no. The truth of
informants assumptions is not at issue, though it is interesting to consider why so
many not only assume Eichmann would be killed if he failed to obey, but talk as if
this assumption were written into the question. (Hannah Arendt [1965, p. 91] states
that in the Nuremberg documents not a single case could be traced in which an
S.S. member had suffered the death penalty because of a refusal to take part in an
While the proportion of inmates and free informants who held Eichmann to be
without evil was roughly equal (almost two-thirds), their reasoning was different,
at least on the surface. It is a difference that is key to understanding evil. Every free
informant who found Eichmann not evil used the just a cog in the war machine
argument: he didnt have any choice, he was just doing his job, if he didnt do it
someone else would have, and he would have gotten himself killed for no reason
at all.
Not a single inmate used this argument. Instead, inmates see the world in
Hobbesian terms, a perpetual war of all against all in which there are no innocents,
only victims and executioners. Its total war, man, and in total war theres no
bystanders. Everyone is a soldier.
Even babies?
Yeah, they just dont know it yet.
Alls fair in love and war, said another inmate, Mr. Leotine. In prison for
murdering his parents, he might as well have said love is war, war is war,
everything is war, so anything is fair all the time.
Just as the reality of the ghetto mirrors in exaggerated form the reality of
middle-class life (threatened families, teenagers raised by peer groups and mass
media, the cultivation of violence and toughness as the currency of every relation-
ship), so the reality of prison reflects the values of the free world. The prisoners
who can make no distinction between the mass murder of innocent civilians and
the clash of armies, dividing the entire world into victims and executioners, are
The Political Psychology of Evil 9
expressing in slightly exaggerated (and not always exaggerated) form a worldview
common among a majority of informants.
Connect the only a cog in the war machine argument with the assumption
of almost every free informant who did not find Eichmann evil, that he did what
he did because he would be killed if he didnt. Is this not really a bureaucratized
and rationalized version of the war of all against all? This is still total war, kill or
be killed, only now the chaos is contained within the bureaucracy. It has order,
structure, and in that sense is not the chaotic war of all against all of which Hobbes
writes. Instead, it is the war of some against others. If the some dont carry out their
orders, they will be killed and replaced by others who will. This war is still the war
of all against all, only now its serial.
Prisoners are like the neurotics that Freud writes of: people like everyone else,
but more so. They are closer to their dread: it is less contained, less well-managed.
This makes some dangerous, more in need of prison walls. It does not make them
and their reasoning fundamentally different. On the contrary, they knowsomething
about the horror of victimization, the sense of living in a world in which one is
either victim or executioner, which free informants feel but cant know, or rather,
cannot know in such bitter and unmediated form. (Every statement here comparing
inmates and free informants should be read with an implicit on average.)
The Iron Cage
If the war of all against all and cog-in-the-machine arguments are truly
continuous, one would expect to find informants having difficulty finding a way
out: a third path between that of victim and executioner, domination and submis-
sion, evil-doer and victim of evil. One would expect that informants would
experience this world as having no outside, no exit. Many do, with consequences
for how they view evil. This critique of modern society has been made many times.
The analysis of Herbert Marcuse (1964) and the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory
finds this totalizing tendency not just in totalitarian regimes, but liberal democratic
ones. It is not, however, a critique limited to the left. Its original and most famous
proponent is Max Weber, who wrote of the modern world as an iron cage of icy
polar darkness and night, every aspect of life the subject of administration
(Mitzman, 1984).
For prisoners the iron cage is no metaphor, though it is striking how many feel
that they are more free in prison than without. In the world I had two choices: kill
my husband or die a little more every day.
Why didnt you just walk out?
Ive thought about that everyday Ive been here. I dont know. I know that I
was in a worse prison than now. At least here I can think, I can choose my values.
For free informants the iron cage is more metaphorical, more multidimen-
sional too, but no less real, the world providing few choices between doing evil
10 Alford
and suffering it. Grace E. turned down a commission in the Air Force to be a fighter
pilot because she knew she could not drop bombs on people. Now she is in an
aerospace engineering program, learning howto design better bombs. I hate it, but
where do I draw the line? How do I draw it? Where does the responsibility stop?
How far do I have to go to get away from evil? She thinks Eichmann was evil
because he knew the Nazi reality.
Mary H., believer in the creamy All, had a job several decades ago updating
maps of Cambodia. Later she discovered these maps were used to guide the
invading forces under Nixon. None of us considered what these maps might be
used for, we never thought about it. We were kids, you know.
Was it evil?
She pauses. No, its not evil if you dont know, or if you dont think about
it. She doesnt believe Eichmann was evil. He didnt know, did he? Not really.
Who could?
Terry P. sat in the hall reading her Bible before her interview. Her lesson was
the 52nd Psalm. It is about not lying. She thinks Eichmann was evil. We all have
a choice, including the choice to die for what we believe. But she is bothered by
the question, obsessing over it, stating several times There but for the grace of
God go I.
She was not identifying with his victims. She was identifying with Eichmann.
She hopes, but is far fromcertain, that she would have the wit and courage to refuse,
because she knows what it is like to be morally lost, adrift. She had been there
before converting to Christianity several years ago.
Andrew S. fought in Europe during World War Two. I was the youngest
second lieutenant in the army, just like Bush in the Navy. He is certain that
Eichmann was not guilty. He was just a cog in the war machine, just like the rest
of us. The German officer who shot Jews was guilty, but Andrewquickly changes
the question around. Now if theyd been partisans, blowing up the railroad or
something, then he would have been within his rights.
The key point but a subtle one is that all but Andrew identify with Eichmann
not the victims. Five Jewish informants, all under the age of 35, identify with
Eichmann. Identification does not mean they think he is not evil, though three do
not and one is not sure. It means that Eichmanns victims and their suffering do not
enter the picture, except as abstractions. They see the issue strictly fromEichmanns
viewpoint, from his eyes. You grow up in Nazi Germany, you hear all this stuff
for years, you come to believe it. It all depends on how you were raised. People
will believe anything if you brainwash them long enough.
One might argue that the question is posed from Eichmanns perspective, so
of course informants identify with him. But the question is simply whether the
Eichmann-type individual (who does not necessarily hate Jews, knows about the
Final Solution, and above all likes to carry out his assigned duties) is evil. It is
the informants choice to see the situation from his eyes, a choice so simple and
natural it took me awhile to see how strange it really was.
The Political Psychology of Evil 11
The dictionary meaning of evil is excess, beyond the norm, from the
German uebel, over or beyond. Evil is the destruction of order, chaos, and
confusion, the second most common definition among informants. In such a
disordered world power is the only currency. Victimhood can have no meaning
when there is no one to witness, remember, or understand.
Theorists of the Holocaust such as Bauman and Arendt fail to appreciate the
intrusion of doom and dread, what has been called precategorical evil, into moder-
nity. They fail to understand, in other words, how scared people really are. The
experience of precategorical dread is above all an experience of powerlessness
before terror. I couldnt move, it was like this tremendous weight. I was
paralyzed with terror, helpless. It was there, right over my shoulder, but I couldnt
turn around and look at it. My heart was frozen. Here is the language of precate-
gorical dread, a language in which power is the only antonym to paralysis.
Many identify with Eichmann not because they want to, but because identify-
ing with the meaningless deaths of his victims is too terrible to contemplate. Not
all the time but when push comes to shove, we live in a world of executioners and
dead meat, as one puts it. Except for Andrew, who identifies with a regime that
once, at least, combined power with righteousness, even if this did not always keep
it, or him, from doing evil.
The bars of the iron cage are composed of power and victimhood, the percep-
tion that these are the only choices. The cage is made more confining still by the
failure of cultural memory, which makes of meaningful victimhood an oxymoron.
How can being a victimliving and dying for a belief or value rather than
powerbe meaningful in a world in which being a victim is tantamount to having
never existed?
The problem, of course, is not the failure of memory per se. It is the failure of
the culture to preserve those categories of experience that make victimhood
meaningful so that the meaning might be available to make the memory meaningful.
Rachel B. remembers back to grade school, when her teacher had the class draw
family trees. She couldnt. All her relatives had been killed in the Holocaust. Her
family did not talk about them, so it was as if they had never existed.
What evil have you done?
Once I wished my baby sister had never been born. For Rachel that was the
consummate evil, not just to harm another, not just to kill him, but to make it as if
another had never existed. Primo Levi said he would take his life when it no longer
served to remind people of the Holocaust, when people no longer wished to
remember. Robbed forever of the joy of living, his life had meaning only as witness,
and only as long as others were willing to be witnessed to.
The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, whose intellectual founders were
Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Marcuse, understood that power cannot
overcome dread. They also understood the persistence of the illusion that it can.
They called this illusion the dialectic of Enlightenment, referring to how progress
in Enlightenment culminates in the resurrection of myth. Capable of transforming
12 Alford
the external world, reason is in the end powerless before the dread that motivates
this transformation: dread of limits, of mortality, of meaninglessness, of vulner-
ability and loss.
Adorno, lead author of The Authoritarian Personality, which seemed to
explain the Holocaust in terms of the prevalence of authoritarian types in the Nazi
regime, held a position that was vastly more complex than this. In Dialectic of
Enlightenment, written with Horkheimer (1972) and published in 1947, Adorno
argued that man turned his reason to the domination of nature because of the terrors
unconquered nature held for him. Not just science but philosophy expressed this
ethic of domination. Reason as rage at a world too sparse to be dominated, as
Adorno put it elsewhere. Marginal groups such as Jews, Blacks, and prison inmates
are identified with unconquered nature, in the vain hope that with their containment
or destruction the terror of nature itself can be overcome. More recently, Michel
Foucault (1979, 1990) has made a similar argument about how the irrational
stealthily intrudes upon the rational, leading to the deployment of rational methods
and argument in the service of delusion.
If you go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., you may find that it
is not the photographs, or even the piles of shoes and hair, that overcome you. For
better or worse, many seem to have become immune to the pathos of such images.
Overwhelming is the perverse rationality of it all, the elaborate categories of beings
to be destroyed, the Institutes for Racial Hygiene, the Offices of Purification of the
Reich, the Departments of Special Procedures. The Holocaust was science, indus-
try, and bureaucracy driven by images of doom, impurity, and dread, the stuff of
precategorical evil. The Holocaust was the intrusion of precategorical dread into
modernity, where it is not supposed to be, and which has no categories for it, just
primitive superstition, which makes modernity all the more vulnerable (Glass,
Though Andrew is not walled off to his own precategorical experiences, such
as the awesome silence of the buzz bombs over London, he steadfastly refuses to
let them influence his moral judgment. He defines evil as the irresponsible lack of
self-restraint, a refusal to face lifes seriousness. He ran a department store in a poor
section of the city, and in so defining evil, he and I both know he is talking by
implication about blacks.
Andrew guides his life by his fathers motto, the fittin thing to do, which
means fitting in with the values and needs of ones group, no matter what, and not
because these values are objectively right in every case. Andrew is surprisingly
relativistic about the German and Japanese aggressors, recognizing that from their
perspective they may have been acting morally. This, though, does not confuse him,
it only reaffirms his belief that loyalty and morality are one, about commitment to
ones group no matter what. Nor does his relativism assuage his fury at the
historical revisionists who want to paint the atomic bombing of Japan as wrong.
The Political Psychology of Evil 13
You want to know whats evil, thats evil. Historical revisionism is evil. The
bomb saved my keester. Id already been wounded in Europe. Id have been a dead
man if they sent me to Japan.
The utter conventionality of Andrews morality means there was nothing he
would not do for his group: nothing right, nothing wrong, nothing. Andrew is in
touch with precategorical experience, though it would be more accurate to say that
precategorical is in touch with him, such as feeling his late wifes presence in the
church so strongly he cannot return there. But it does not translate into reflec-
tiveness about anything, including morality. He is surprisingly relativistic, but
in ways that only enhance his loyalty to the one thing he can believe in, the
fittin thing to do.
Andrewis the dialectic of Enlightenment living out its final days in Retirement
World, images of precategorical doom, like the silent buzz bombs, defended against
by perfect loyalty, and rage at the historical revisionists who would wish his death
on the beaches of Japan. Or so it seems to him. Final days because in a postmodern
world, myth no longer masquerades as reason. For better and worse, it is all fiction.
By and large younger informants are more cynical. Less vulnerable to the evils
that stem from unreflective, conventional attachment to ones group, they are more
vulnerable to the belief that morality is not about what you do in this iron cage of
a world, but who you are. For all his faults, Andrew believes that individuals can
act together in the world to overcome aggressors like Hitler. For many younger
informants, real freedom is what takes place deep inside. Inmates share this belief;
they just have better reasons for it.
Among those who let Eichmann off the hook, Tom A. was speaking for a
majority when he said, Youd really have to knowwhat he was thinking, wouldnt
you? I mean down deep. And how could you, how could anyone? So you just cant
judge, I mean people in glass houses shouldnt throwstones. In Toms world there
is no place to hide, except perhaps deep down inside, where all that is important in
judging good and evil resides. The outside, its just what I do, not who I am.
Toms is not a great morality. There is an objective quality to evil that it
ignores, abandoning the world to the powerful and the damned. But this morality
is real, and must be dealt with. It is interesting to learn about howpeople understand
evil, for it is interesting to learn about the world. It is, however, more than
interesting. It is morally important, so that we might have a dialog about evil, a
dialectic that connects surface belief with core experiences, precategorical doom
with categorical morality. In the end this is the only dialectic that counts.
Inmates and free citizens think about evil in roughly the same ways. Among
inmates, however, there is greater variation, more extremes. Thinking evil is the
14 Alford
same as doing it, is a common view among inmates, less common among other
informants. Life is a war in which there are only victims and executioners is a
common view among informants. But it is held in a harsher, more literal sense by
many inmates.
Such extremes are the mark of borderline thinking. Fewpsychoanalysts would
be so naive, or boring, as to say that the goal is integration. Rather, it is to increase
the traffic between the extremes, so that they might communicate with each other,
knowthe other, even if they do not become best friends, indistinguishable compan-
ions. I have made much the same argument about evil, an argument that applies
equally to inmates and free citizens.
Education about evil, an education that helps people become aware that some
choices are evil, is not about moral inculcation. Nor is it about values clarifica-
tion, whatever that means exactly. It is about the explication of doom, so that it
does not corrupt categorical morality, reducing morality to a question of power, the
power to avoid victimization. This requires playing with evil, exploring ones
sadistic and destructive inclinations in thought and talk, not deed, lest the deed
become a substitute for self-knowledge. Evil is, or can be, fun; if it were not, people
would not do it. It is a simple but powerful point that most informants get, and many
scholars do not (Alford, 1990).
The leading definition of evil among all informants is evil as pleasure in
hurting. The psychoanalyst Erna Furman (1993, p. 263) calls it hurting fun when
she talks with her young patients, and she is just right. Adults should not be
encouraged to play with evil for funs sake, but to create new traffic patterns, so to
speak, new connections between their fears, desires, and morality. Far more than
we are aware, morality, including the morality of sociological relativism, is too
often about power. Morality = power is an equation as central to the modern world
as Foucaults knowledge/power. Unlike Foucault (1990), I argue that if we explore
the roots of the moral equation in doom, we may have a chance to refigure it.
I wish to thank the inmates and staff of the Patuxent Institution for their help
and encouragement at every stage in this project. Director Joseph Henneberry, Dr.
Henry Richards, and Ms. Deborah Kafami sawimmediately why it might be useful
to study concepts of evil among prisoners. Dr. Kevin McCamant is my associate
in the prison portion of the research; Mr. Wayne Beckles has been most helpful.
The eighteen inmates have shared their lives.
The Political Psychology of Evil 15
Among Free World informants, 20 men and 20 women were interviewed.
Age Distribution: 18-25: 24; 25-50: 10; 51-80: 6
Ethnicity: 10 Oriental, 1 Indian (Eastern), 2 black, 27 white.
Religion: 11 Catholic (or raised Catholic), 3 Lutheran, 10 other Protestant
denominations, 1 Jehovahs Witness, 1 Hindu, 2 Buddhist, 3 Evangelical Christian,
5 Jewish, 3 atheist/agnostic, 1 pagan
The 18 inmates range in age from 19 to 48; 5 are women. The prison refers to
inmates as Mr. or Ms. It is how I came to know them, so it is my practice here.
Other informants are referred to by first name and last initial. All are pseudonyms.
My work with inmates was in a group, the average size a dozen inmates. As a
member of the A.K. Rice Institute (the American branch of the Tavistock School
in London), I am schooled in group process. Though I pay attention to process in
order to decipher the complexity of the group experience, my conclusions are not
hypotheses about process, but about what inmates actually say.
Age Distribution: 18-25: 5; 26-35: 7; 36-48: 6
Ethnicity: 10 black, 8 white
Religion: The varieties of religious experience among inmates defy my at-
tempts at categorization. Most were raised in nominally Protestant homes. Several
are from Catholic backgrounds, two are Jewish. The Nation of Islam is active in
prison, and many have been influenced by its teachings, including white inmates.
The questionnaire has about 50 items. The question about Nazis reads as
12. Consider two examples. A good German during World War II works hard
at his desk, helping to keep the trains running on time, making sure there are always
enough boxcars available to transport Jews to the concentration camps. The officer
knows what happens at the camps. He doesnt like to think about it though. He just
likes to do his job well.
Another German officer leads a platoon that rounds up Jews and shoots them
in the neck. He has shot his share of Jews, mostly to set a good example to his men.
Is either of these men evil? Is one more evil than another?
What about a third officer, drafted into this murderous platoon. He uses
every excuse he can to avoid the shooting, hates it, makes him sick to his stomach,
gives him ulcers, and nightmares. But when his commander says shoot, or you go
to the Russian front, he shoots. Is he evil? As evil?
16 Alford
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The Political Psychology of Evil 17