Nice killers

Most of us envision mass killers as stone cold nut jobs, like Cho Seung Hui, who carried out Monday’s Virginia Tech carnage. By all accounts, he was an angry, lonely person, obsessed with violent death. Small wonder that, given the means and the opportunity, he would act out his vengeful fantasies. The same held true for the Columbine killers, boys whom their school mates could easily see in the terrible executioner’s role they’d assigned themselves.

So many killers aren’t actually like that. If they were, more of us could see them coming and avoid them. In other words, like some snakes, their rattles would give them away.

Robert Spencer is concerned with another type of killer, the happy one who kills not because he is crazy or even angry, but because he is ideologically driven. As he points out in the opening paragraphs of his article about nice killers, many of these killers (or their money men) are described as really nice guys, people who are friendly and happy. Nevertheless, they kill, and they kill in staggering numbers. As often as not, their niceness can be ascribed to the fact that they view their killings as a good thing that they’re doing for the greater good of humanity, a humanity that will benefit from their fascist, totalitarian view of the ideal society:

It was the Nazi genocide mastermind Heinrich Himmler who told a group of SS leaders: “Most of you know what it means to see a hundred corpses lying together, five hundred, or a thousand. To have gone through this and yet — apart from a few exceptions, examples of human weakness — to have remained decent fellows, this is what has made us hard. This is a glorious page in our history that has never been written and shall never be written…”

Were these SS mass murderers really decent fellows? To their friends and family, they probably were. After all, they weren’t interested in undifferentiated mayhem. They were adherents of a totalitarian, genocidal ideology that convinced them that the murders they were committing were for a good purpose. As far as they were concerned, their goals were rational and good, and the murders were a means to that goal. It was not just a noteworthy achievement, but a necessity, for them to remain “decent fellows,” for they were busy trying to build what they saw as a decent society. That their vision of a decent society included genocide and torture did not trouble them, for it was all for – in their view – a goal that remained good.

Today’s jihad terrorists are likewise the adherents of a totalitarian, genocidal ideology that teaches them that murders committed under certain circumstances are a good thing. And those murders, here again, are not committed for their own sake, but for the sake of a societal vision hardly less draconian and evil than that of Hitler, but one also that portrays itself as the exponent of all that is good – as the Taliban showed us. But the continued reference to such people as “terrorists” pure and simple, and the refusal of the media and most law enforcement officials to examine their ideology at all, only reinforces the idea that these people are raving maniacs, interested solely in chaos for its own sake. The society they want to build, and the means besides guns and bombs that they are using to build it, so far remain below the radar screen of most analysts. These people are just “terrorists,” interested only in “terror.” And so we’re continually surprised when they turn out to be nice guys after all. Decent fellows. Like the SS.

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  • JJ

    Are we continually surprised? I don’t think so. Possibly I’m strange, but I’m not surprised.

    Because nobody is only one thing, and only that thing at all times.

    Hitler liked dogs (and was a great trainer thereof, he could train his dogs to do anything), and he was very fond of children he knew. He was not a smoker, and didn’t like smoking, but he wasn’t a crank about it: you could smoke in his presence if you didn’t blow it at him – which makes him easier to live with than Michael Bloomberg, or the city of San Francisco. (And he had a standing offer of a gold watch to anyone on his staff who quit.) He also gave his immediate office staff so many days off at the least request that it drove everybody crazy: there was never anyone to take a memo: the secretary was home nursing her sore toe or something.

    Reinhard Heydrich was a rather good artist, and a serious world-class virtuoso-level violinist. AND an executioner.

    Himmler was a lover of children, and there is an extraordinary photograph of him and his small daughter Gudrun at some kind of performance, and it is just obvious from the photograph that he was totally wrapped up by his child – he looks like Charlie Anybody, Suburban Daddy. Which by the way, she always said he was. (Don’t know if Gudrun’s still alive, she was until recently if not; but she always said he was a loving, kind, and devoted father.)

    But that’s the point: there is (or was) someone in the world who knew Heinrich Himmler as “daddy.” There are (or were) a bunch of elderly women around who think back fondly on Hitler as a great boss, and sucker for any lame sob story to get a day off. They don’t think of these people as monsters, because to them they weren’t.

    And that’s the heart of the point: all of them were human, and therefore all of them were capable of more than one idea at a time. Capable of more than one way of being at a time. Nobody is just one thing.

    Back in my active shrink days I occasionally worked with a police department or two. Cops, though generally good guys, are often not the brightest bulbs on the planet and they often require help staying in touch with the world. – We’ve allowed them to become a subset of humanity: they speak their own language, they have their own codes, they hang out with each other, they don’t much interact with the rest of us.

    I used to begin with a roomful of them, of whom I asked a simple question: “what are you?” Invariably, the answer would come back: “I’m a cop.”

    I would then ask a series of questions, and it would go something like this:

    Q – Do you have parents?
    A – Yes.
    Q – Brothers or sisters?
    A – Yes.
    Q – Are you married?
    A – Yes.
    Q – Do you have children?
    A – Yes.
    Q – Own a home?
    A – Yes.
    Q – Got neighbors?
    A – Yes.
    Q – Then what makes you define yourself as a cop?
    A – Huh?
    Q – Look what you’ve just told me. You are somebody’s child, so you are a son. You are a brother. You are a husband. You are a father. You are a homeowner, with all of those problems – have to mow the lawn, rake leaves, clean the gutters, all that stuff. And you are a neighbor, who probably helps the guy next door or is helped by him. You are not a cop. “Cop” is what you do, it’s a job description. What you ARE is a hell of a lot more than a job description. Nobody’s just a job description.

    That holds true for everybody, and there isn’t anything about it that’s surprising, so I’m not surprised. Even terrorists put their pants on one leg at a time, and occasionally stub their toes and hop around in agony yelling impotently at the sky. And some are fathers, some children, some brothers, some sisters. Some, at this time of year, are blowing their noses every thirty seconds dealing with their springtime allergies.

    Their particular “ism” is vile, their reaction to it is vile – but they’re just people. Which for many makes it harder, that somebody who is at heart just another person is capable of what they seem to be capable of. That makes it worse.

    But certainly not abnormal, or even unusual, for humans.

  • DensityDuck

    JJ: sheesh. He defines himself as a cop because conversational convention tells us that’s what you mean when you ask “what are you?” It doesn’t have anything to do with your ridiculous self-dramatization.

    Anyway, as for the blog post. I’ll quote “The X-Files” (and this is a half-remembered re-quote from someone else, so I might well have it wrong.)

    “He’s one of the most dangerous men in the world. Not because he’s doing what he thinks is right; it’s because he’s doing what he thinks is the only thing fate will allow him to do.”

  • DensityDuck

    Ugh. Dang HTML!

  • ymarsakar

    Hell isn’t paved with good intentions for no reason, Book. To recycle an old truism.

    The true believer derives his power from his strong beliefs in his own righteousness and certainty. By breaking this belief and certainty in victory, you turn a true believer into a convert or just a disbeliever.

    Finding out how to crack someone’s investment in a specific philosophy, is easier said than done. What would have had to do to Zawahiri or Atta to get them to believe that they should defect to our side? Tricky question isn’t it. And yet if you cannot do so, then that’s the limitation of your own philosophy. If it is not strong enough to convince true believers of other stripes, then it is limited by such weakness.

    The Ideological War between totalitarian socialism and capitalistic free countries, has many facets. But deep down it all revolves around one thing. Whether people believe you or not.