Lately, it seems to be my fate to delve into the minds of villains. Or at least perceived villains.
A couple of weeks ago, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC used her time slot to show a documentary about Timothy McVeigh. You can read about it here. The week after that, American Experience on PBS aired one of the most amazing documentaries I have ever seen. Focusing on the My Lai Massacre of 1968, the documentary covered every possible viewpoint equally, from the villagers to the soldiers of the Charlie Company to the prosecutor. You can check out the documentary here. Next week, American Experience is going to focus on James Earl Ray.
Why explore how these people think? There’s a level of cruelty that people reach where it doesn’t seem worthwhile to wonder why they did it. Their actions are their legacy. In the case of Timothy McVeigh that would certainly seem to be the case. In the case of the 9/11 hijackers that would certainly seem to be the case. Why bother? They did what they did.
I think it is absolutely essential to explore these things. Is it uncomfortable? Sure. But what does it reveal? Why is it relevant? What can we learn?
In the case of Timothy McVeigh, we could use his case to shine the light on PTSD and depression which so many of our military men and women are suffering from, often with no assistance, no understanding. How many of our military men and women have come home and committed suicide or beaten their spouses? More than we hear about, I can guarantee you. I’m not saying that we should feel sorry for McVeigh. I’m not saying that he was right in the head and he just had a sad time in Iraq. But maybe all of that pent up anger after he reentered civilian life was part of something that is affecting a lot of other people in a lot of different ways. Maybe we can learn from him for the future.
And what about the My Lai massacre? Like McVeigh, the members of the Charlie Company did the unthinkable. They killed women, they killed children, they killed the defenseless elderly. And killing is an understatement in this case. The people, we know now, were mutilated, abused, killed slowly. You might think that there could be no way to understand how these men committed these atrocities, and indeed, the documentary showed a couple of men who categorically refused to shoulder any blame or feelings of remorse. Why? They were military men. They’d been trained to do what they were told, no questions asked. They were told, so the story goes, that everyone in the My Lai village was either a Communist or a Communist sympathizer. Did that rationalize the gruesomeness of the killing? No. But what can we learn from this? Think back a few years ago to the atrocities we learned about in Baghdad prisons. Those soldiers also said that they were doing what they had been told to do.
And I guess that’s why I think it’s absolutely essential that we try to learn from these tragedies. I can’t get to a place where I think like a James Earl Ray or the murderer at Virginia Tech. But I want to understand what fed that darkness. I want to learn how we can avoid these things in the future. I don’t think it’s impossible. But we have to be willing to put ourselves in a place where we are willing to look at cruelty, our most base human instincts, and ask the question why. It’s not easy. But I encourage the trying. A little discomfort now would be a small price to pay if we could use our knowledge to stave off future tragedies. Don’t you think?
Photo by “Salssa” http://www.sxc.hu/profile/salssa