The banality of evil

As gardaí will know too well, those who commit heinous crimes can often appear the most ordinary writes David Carey

We demonise violent criminals, arsonists and paedophiles. We need to turn them into something that is totally unlike us. We cannot fathom the nature of their crimes, some of them depraved and unspeakable (like the one I will outline below). What is our human conceit that leads us to believe people who do these horrid things are less than human? I have met individuals who have committed atrocious crimes including arson, homicide, rape and violent assault.  The most horrendous of them all was John Ofanoble (not his real name).

John was 38 years of age when I met him. At the time, nearly 25 years ago, I was working in a private practice with a forensic psychiatrist. We were involved in a lot of criminal work and I was often asked to assess people for cognitive impairment or personality disorders that may, or may not, have impinged on their crime or on the court proceedings.

John was the eldest child in a working-class family. As a boy he resided in a modest home with his parents and three youngest siblings. As an infant he was colicky, difficult to sooth, easily over-stimulated by noise or changes in temperature. Beyond that there was nothing unusual about his early years. He entered school at the age of five and this is when people began to notice he was different from other children.

His conversation often centred around stories involving death, of people or animals. He drew pictures of dead people and dead animals. He had no learning problems and proceeded smoothly through elementary school without major incident. However, the records revealed constant teacher concerns about his behaviour and poor impulse control as well as his fascination with death. His parents did report that at times he would play with matches, light fires in the back garden and was known to harass and torture insects and, on one occasion, the neighbour’s pet cat.

At age 12, he came to the attention of the juvenile authorities in a most extraordinary way. He has been discovered mid-day, in a farmer’s field, stabbing a lamb with a large butcher’s knife. After being apprehended and brought before the juvenile courts a psychiatric assessment was ordered. The results revealed that he had strong psychopathic traits in his emerging personality makeup and that he had no remorse for his crime. It was the opinion of the examiner that he be sent to a juvenile correction facility, be assessed repeatedly and maintained there until the age of 16.

During that incarceration John was noted to behave bizarrely. He would bully other youngsters, but not physically, and often talk about the death of animals and people. Despite all this, he was released at age 17 and returned home.

Nothing is known of him until the age of 20. At that time he had befriended a young couple who had an eight year old son. While visiting the family one evening he asked if he could take the boy with him to the shop. He drove to a wooded area and sexually abused the child. His advances and abuse became gradually more and more violent and he stabbed the child 12 times, drove to the local police station, walked in and reported his crime. Thankfully, the boy survived this assault.

John was tried, numerous reports were compiled and he was sentenced to a 15 year prison term, the maximum the law allowed. He served out his sentence in solitary confinement – separated from the general population – for his own safety. While serving his time the bizarre behaviour continued, though he was not a problem with other prisoners even on the short breaks he had in the yard with the general population.

He was released from prison at age 35, despite numerous psychological and psychiatric reports saying he should not be. There was no option because he had served his full sentence.

Further court proceedings resulted in the same outcome: ordering more assessments. That is when I met him, shackled behind bars, head and wrists. He was polite and friendly, charming even, and was quite verbal and expressive.

Now, was John Ofanoble a monster? No, he was quite ordinary. Apart from his being a violent paedophile, there was nothing unusual about him at all. Except that his mind was warped, twisted and deviant. How did he get that way? Who knows? His family life as a child was unremarkable. He had no known instances of head injuries.

The point of all this is that there aren’t any ‘monsters.’ There are just people who, sometimes for no known reason, are radically different from the rest of us. The problem for society remains, “What do we do with them?”

Dr David Carey is a Consultant Psychologist and Resident Child Psychologist on Newstalk’s Sean Moncrieff Show


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