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Defendant Anders Behring Breivik. left, discusses a matter with his defence lawyer Geir Lippestad during the second day of proceedings in the courtroom in Oslo Tuesday April 17, 2012. (Lise Aserud/Scanpix Norway, Pool/AP)
Defendant Anders Behring Breivik. left, discusses a matter with his defence lawyer Geir Lippestad during the second day of proceedings in the courtroom in Oslo Tuesday April 17, 2012. (Lise Aserud/Scanpix Norway, Pool/AP)

Q&A

Making sense of the senseless: Are murderers simply evil? Add to ...

There is no place like a courtroom to reveal, in stomach-churning detail, the darkest side of humanity. In London, Ont., a jury continues the grim task of unravelling the circumstance that led to the brutal rape and murder of Tori Stafford. In a Norwegian courtroom this week, Anders Breivik described robotically how some of the teenagers he gunned down froze in panic, unable to run away. “This is something they never show on TV,” he said. “It was very strange.” And yet, we want so much to believe that he is the strange one, the aberration. But evil is not so easily explained, says Stephen Porter, a forensic psychologist and the director of the Centre for Advancement of Psychological Science and Law at the University of British Columbia.

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Whenever these horrifying acts happen, we look for an explanation to ease our mind. Is it reasonable to expect we can find one?

People hearing about such heinous crimes feel a need to explain them versus concluding that they are “incomprehensible.” Without an explanation, we feel uncomfortable with the world because it suggests “chaos” or distrust in others around us.

Is there any simple or comforting answer to what makes people commit evil acts?

The comforting answers in most people’s minds suggest that the person is different from the rest of us. The perpetrator is a “monster” for whom we cannot have empathy, or is “damaged” (was sexually abused, for example) or at the extreme is mentally ill or “crazy” and deserving of some sympathy. While the question of why someone commits an evil action is highly complex, it should be kept in mind that all humans have impulses, fantasies or thoughts that they must inhibit. At the extreme, psychopaths have no conscience and persist in violating others in ways we might characterize as “evil.” Clifford Olson comes to mind. The scientific question then becomes why do some people have a diminished sense of conscience. What’s in their genes, background, personality, brain and moral development that detracts from the ability to feel empathy or guilt?

These crimes are so rare, and aberrant, why can’t we put these people in a box, and say, “They are not like us?”

Such perpetrators are like the rest of us in a lot of ways. To give an example, well-known work by the evolutionary psychologist David Buss finds that the vast majority of everyday people has pondered killing another person. But hardly any of us act on such a thought. Through research we are coming to an understanding of a category of people – namely psychopaths – who are far more likely than others to commit “evil” actions. We now know a great deal about their brain structure and function, thought processes, emotional dysfunction and how they make moral decisions. As an example, psychopaths show differences in areas of their brains associated with emotion, fear and morality. They also seem to view others as a lion views a gazelle and, in fact, are hyper-attuned to spotting the “weak gazelle” of whom to take advantage. For example, in the Kimberly Proctor murder case [in British Columbia] it was reported that the young perpetrators – both described as having psychopathic traits – chose her because she was an “easy target.”

Is there a distinction to be made between the case in Norway and the calculated abduction of Tori Stafford in Ontario?

Of course, the motives in these cases appear to be drastically different. What they share in common seems to be premeditation and a required absence of empathy for other humans. In both instances, it appears that the crimes occurred over an extended period in which the perpetrator or perpetrators would be confronted with the obvious pain and terrible suffering of the victims. In both cases, it is alleged that the prolonged agony and suffering of the victim was ignored for completely selfish reasons. The commonality then is the apparent planned and extended cold-blooded nature of the violence. The origin of this profound lack of empathy that causes such damage is something that needs to be a targeted focus of criminology and psychology and of government resources.

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