What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men

The recent discovery of the BTK murderer in Kansas raises the eerie question, perhaps best phrased by the Shadow: who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? We are told in the JST version of the Bible to judge righteous judgment (JST John 7:24)–But what do we do when all of us are seemingly fooled, even the righteous? And can we ever feel safe and secure enough to trust those around us (even our fathers, brothers, and sons)?

In the case of the BTK strangler we are faced with some of the most atrocious and evil acts of the last thirty years: a man who hunted women, followed them to their homes, strangled and tortured them. We are also faced with a very ordinary person, even a good person, who was active in the community, in boy scouts, and in his Lutheran Church; and was trusted by people who knew him best. That these two people are most likely the same person should have all of us questioning why and how we trust those closest to us and whether that trust is justified.

It is also apparent that such juxtapositions of good and evil within the same person, on grand scales, is quite common place. Catholic priests, who have sworn their lives to God, molest boys en masse. A leading Boy Scout official praised for his Christian work with young men pleads guilty to child porn. And these are just cases from the last few months.

What inspiration are we entitled to regarding the personal lives of those around us, of those we trust? How is it that people can have such bifurcated natures? Yes, we are all imperfect, make mistakes, and often we put on a public and private persona that attempts to display our best sides, while at the same time hiding our imperfections, sins, and imbalances. But how should we "judge righteous judgment" when we are apparently so often fooled by those around us?


  1. Seth Rogers says:

    I read a real interesting book on this subject. The guy who wrote it was featured on Oprah or something. He runs a security firm that does threat analysis for celebreties and other recipients of death threats, etc. Here’s the link:


    That’s the first time I’ve tried linking to a website, so here’s the info:

    The Gift of Fear
    Gavin de Becker

    His thesis was that in our modern society, we have learned to almost completely tune out the warning signals that our intuition gives us about people and situations. Our society tends to glorify reason and logic and belittle intuition and feelings.

    He analyzed several cases of people who went postal at work, mass murderers, rape, shootings, etc. He said in each instance, people ignored warning signs that SHOULD have been obvious. But the bad feelings were dismissed as “oh, I’m just worrying about nothing” or “I am being so unfair and judgmental to this person” or “I have no reason to think this about him, I don’t even know him.”

    Whether we want to admit it or not, most of our decisions are not rational, but gut emotional responses. Mormons may call this “the promptings of the Spirit” or the “Light of Christ” if they wish. Yet our society criticizes such gut feelings as irrational. Therefore a lot of very real danger signals are ignored. Then people protest:

    “We never saw it coming, he seemed like such a nice guy.”

    when the truth is that he’d been transmitting danger signals for the past three months.

  2. But we aren’t fooled by the people around us that often. How many serial killers have you known?

    And I think what you’re talking about is denial. How do you stop living in denial when you don’t know you are? Ha. I think it’s only after having your denial shattered that you learn to recognize signs in other people of bad things going on.

  3. HL Rogers says:

    Maybe Susan. And your theory is far more comforting than mine. But how many people in Wichita would have said they knew a serial killer 2 months ago–probably not one. But now …

    I am also not comforted by post hoc analysis of denial. I think I would convince myself I had missed signs after the fact in order to cope with the fact that I had trusted a serial killer. Neighbors of Ted Bundy often remarked about how kind and normal he was …

    I think there is something to what Seth said. It seems like a theory along the lines of the book Blink, which argues that most of our decisions are made quickly without any conscious thought. However, I am still skeptical that there are always visible signs displayed by those with severe problems. I think certain people become extremely good at creating personas. I would hope that the Spirit would indicate evil people to me but with many things involving revelation it appears that is not always the case depending on perhaps eternal plans and the knowledge of the Lord. In the end I am not very comforted by any of these theories. But perhaps I am not supposed to be comforted but weary …

  4. I’ve thought a lot about this topic but have never come up with an answer I fully like. That said, I think I would feel much more comfortable living with the posibility that I might be taken advantage of than to live constantly on guard of other people.

    I am reminded of Bishop Myriel who, at the beginning of Les Miserables, let a large, scary ex-con into his house in the middle of the night. He could have let in a murderer; turns out he only let in a thief. But it didn’t faze him in the least.

    It can be awful dangerous, but for some reason I still side with the Bishop.

  5. I find it hard to generalize on such issues, as I believe their may be truly deceptive people out there….But I have to go with the whole intuition thing. I have a friend that just recently got married but struggled with the decision for quite some time due to those she has seen marry only to find out that their spouse has major problems with fidelity, gambling, pornography, honesty, sanity. She was panic stricken that this man she loved and admired would end up leaving the church or become the next Mark Hacking or Scott Peterson. Personally, the fact that she was so worried about it and a few of the specific reasons that lead her to her worries should of told her something, but I believe their are always signs as to the true character of a person, as long as we are willing to acknowledge them. I refuse to beleive that an abusive relationship is entered into without some warning signs of the possibilities before hand. I understand that these are not always acknowledged because one is either lost in love or strictly intent on being oh-so-rational. Different ends of the spectrum. I am somewhat paranoid, but I think at a healthy level. We need to trust our instincts, act rationally, AND live our lives without being constantly in fear. It can be exhausting. Really.

  6. Speaking of bishops and murderers: My bishop told me that on his mission, he and his companion taught a certain Cambodian man. When they gave him the first discussion, they asked him if he felt the spirit, and he cooly boasted, “I’ve killed a man with my bare hands.” Perhaps this man really needed the gospel. Even so, they never went back. Since hearing this story, I’ve struggled to find a way to drop this boast into casual conversation and failed.

    At any rate, it’s important to remember that evil people doesn’t come with horns or tails or some other disfigurement. If it did, or (as Robert Bolt wrote) “If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes.” We must indeed be on our guard, for one may smile and smile and still be a villain.

  7. sarah jones says:

    slightly related….I have been pondering the wonderment of the plea of insanity that many evil men seem to get away with once caught in these actions. Or maybe it’s just on TV, Law and Order is on way too much. Anyways, I wonder if any cold blooded murderer, molestor, etc is ever in their right mind. I understand that their may be extenuating circumstances, but generally, should they get away with lesser sentences because of this? Do I make any sense? Enlighten me.

  8. Lonnie Athens, a criminologist and sociologist, wrote a book titled “The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals” based on extensive interviews with imprisoned people who had committed the most violent kinds of acts. He came up with a model of experiences that leads a person to a final (fourth) stage of virulency — a stage where a person will spontaneously act with disproportional violence against the slightest provocation or aggression. His list of 4 stages were:

    1) brutalization (the person experiences abuse personally, witnesses the abuse of others and is violently coached). Often all of this happens in the context of the home.
    2) Belligerency
    3) Violent Performances
    4) Virulency

    A person who suffers initial stages of brutalization may or may not follow the pathway that leads to virulency. There are different ways this can happen. Some may reject violence entirely from the beginning. Or the person who begins to act violently might lose a fight. Losing a fight leads some to give up on a violent schema. On the other hand, others will respond to a loss by escalating the level of violence they use or resorting to weapons.

    The problem Lonnie Athens points out is that some people who were formerly victims feel a rush of empowerment when they act violently. Winning a fight or hurting another person isn’t necessarily the ultimate payoff. The real change happens when news of the sudden violence filters out into the violent person’s community. People around them begin to feel fear, to act more cautiously around them and to speak of them to others (i.e.: “He’s crazy. Stay the heck away from that guy.”). The violent person may experience this as respect and power, which leads them to more fully embrace the violent resolution — an increased determination to act with disporporational violence against any perceived slight or provocation.

    Lonnie Athens’s paradigm doesn’t really explain all evil or all violence that occurs because it depends on the very basic idea that a generation of abused people turns into the next generation of abusers. No doubt there are people with perfectly happy childhoods and loving parents who turn for bad. But Athens’s paradigm was useful because it provided understanding of some possible motivating factors behind violence and cruelty.

    Part of dealing with real evil and cruelty is to sometimes recognize that it is specifically evil because there is no good reason or explanation. If there were any kind of reasoning or justification for what was being done, the acts wouldn’t be so obviously evil in the first place. By definition, evil is never proportional or just in its actions or responses to others. That seems obvious and dumb, but sometimes when I’m looking for any reason why “such a thing” happened it is useful to realize there is none.

  9. From what I understand the insanity defense is seldom used and almost never succeeds. See here.

  10. Seth Rogers says:

    Saying “I never saw it coming” is probably quite comforting to some. It absolves us of any responsibility we may have had for the tragedy.

    The media likes to portray serial killers as completely unpredictable. This serves the 5 o’clock news in two ways:
    1. It feeds the paranoia of the viewership (which boosts ratings).
    2. It flatters the viewership at the same time by assuring them that these killers aren’t “real people like you and me.”

    But ask an FBI profiler and she’ll beg to differ. Predators of all stripes nearly always display a very predictable pattern. We don’t like to venture into this territory because we want to believe that these people are “monsters” and are completely different from us. We want assurance that we are not like them. We “could never do something like that.”

    The harsh reality is that if your mind is capable of conceptualizing it, you are capable of doing it. We are all capable of becoming monsters.

    But this doesn’t mean we need to do monstrous things. Most of us choose not to. Actually, the fact that we are capable of atrocities can actually benefit us. Because we are capable of it, we can recognize it in others.

    There’s no great mystery about the kids at Columbine High School. There is a lot of defensive denial going on over the incident however.

    Note that I am NOT claiming that the victims of rape, violence, etc. “are responsible” for their victimization in the absolutist sense most people talk about the subject. Neither am I saying that those who fail to recognize the danger signs “deserve to get mugged.”

    What I am advocating is that we recognize that we need keep our eyes open to very real possibilities around us. I am advocating empowerment over victimization.

  11. Davis Bell says:

    It’s a tough question, but not one, in my opinion, that deserves much consideration, for the following reasons:

    1. The probability of ever being duped by such a person is extremely low (although obviously not zero);

    2. The measures one would have to take eliminate the already low probability of being duped are so extreme that they would necessitate a withdrawal from normal, daily life.

    Therefore, I think the best thing to do is to always listen to the Spirit, be prudent and wise, and then acknowledge we live in a fallen world and hope for the best.

  12. Sarah,

    The insantity defense is one response to the broader question of whether the state of a person’s mind should matter when they are charged with a criminal act. The legal term for this is mens rea which is latin for “guilty mind”. If a person does not have the requisite mens rea when he commits an act, we may not view it as a criminal act at all, or view it as a less serious criminal act. Think of a man who shoots a gun and accidentally kills someone. He killed someone and society may or may not deserve some sort of punishment depending on the circumstances, but in any case its easy to think of him as less culpable than if he pulled the trigger with the intent to kill.

    Likewise, we may not think that a person who honestly does not understand his actions (I thought he was a snake trying to bite me) or would not have committed the act but for a mental illness is as culpable as the cold-blooded killer. The question of whether a person actually believed that he was trying to kill a snake or would not have committed the act but for the mental illness is a question of fact that is decided by the jury.

    The problem most of us have with the insanity defense is that it sounds like a lame excuse for a horrible act. We just don’t believe she was insane when she hacked her mother to pieces with a machete. Alternatively, we are so outraged by the act that we don’t care what her mental state was, our instincts demand that the act not go unanswered.

    Those are pretty natural response in my opinion and it is hard to trust in the system to weed the insane out from those who are looking for a defense to get them off the hook. On the other hand, most of our knowledge of a case fueling our outrage usually comes from the two or three articles we read in the paper–and it seems we ought to be more willing to trust a judge or jury to get to the heart of the facts than a reporter.

  13. Err, that should read “society may or may not believe he deserves”.

    And to clarify, the second paragraph hypotheticals are examples of legal standards for insanity.

  14. Thanks! I no longer will turn to Law & Order for my legal education. Stop cringing all you lawyers.

  15. Daniel the Burnt Sienna says:

    Some people are capable of great evil, while other people are less capable of great evil.
    Some of that capacity for evil is probably determined by such factors as genes, social conditioning, traumatic experiences, etc., while much of it is likely created or limited by personal choices.

    Short and sweet, and I think it covered all the bases. Next topic?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,696 other followers