On the Idiocy of Evil

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Raise your hand if it surprises you that Slobodan Milosevic is a strutting ass. I'm not talking about whether he's a war criminal or a murderer or an ethnic-cleansing madman. I'm talking about the fact that he also appears to be a preening, self-deluded boob. Surprised by that? Neither am I.

If you pretty much figured that Slobodan up close would be a boorish thing, the media was evidently not so prepared. Dispatches from The Hague during the early stages of the former Yugoslavian dictator's war crimes trial deal almost cursorily with the substantive charges against him, focusing instead on his manner: how he refuses to read court minutes, refuses to meet with attorneys; how he smirks as charges are being read and badgers and dismisses witnesses as if they were the defendants and he the prosecutor. Imagine that, the press says with wondering nods. A dictator, a killer...and he's arrogant too!

It's been nearly six decades since the last great war crimes trials — when the murderous clerks of the Nazi regime were rousted from their desks and trooped before the cameras and the world got its first sense of what was meant by the banality of evil. Even now however, we continue to be surprised by the other side of that nasty coin — the preposterousness, the goofiness, the idiocy of evil.

There's a good reason for that. On the whole, we tend to like our monsters large. No accidental bad guys for us — no doubting, fallible, uncertain villains who stumble improvisationally from crime to crime, blinking in occasional surprise at their own power to do harm. No, we prefer cunning, slit-eyed evildoers, malefactors who plan their crimes with dispassionate genius, then execute them with reptilian calm. What sense does a devil make if he acts too much like you or me?

There was no time this impulse to aggrandize the bad was more evident than on September 11, when Osama bin Laden was instantly and predictably elevated into the brotherhood of the brilliantly wicked. Look! the commentators said. See how he got our attention with the first plane so the world would be watching when the second one hit? (As if two planes taking off at different times and flying different routes could have struck the buildings at precisely the same moment even if the amateur pilots at the stick had wanted them to.) Beware! the news people warned. A man with the ability to wreak this kind of destruction could do almost anything. (As if living in a cave and dreaming up a way to knock down a skyscraper takes anywhere near the genius of, say, building one.)

It was only when Osama's look-at-me videos were released that Americans got a chance to take the true measure of the man. As we did, he seemed to shrink on sight, tediously repeating his deeply held belief that the world would rejoice as America burned. But America wasn't burning and the world wasn't rejoicing and wasn't Osama starting to look a bit gaunt, muttering his threats into his camcorder as his followers scattered and his sponsors fell?

The lesson of Osama — the shrunken, lower-case Osama — should have been one history had taught us already. Benito Mussolini seemed like a worthy member of the first Axis of Evil, until the country got a close look at him in the newsreels, comically soaking up the ovation of his people with his fists on his hips and his chin thrust out and that odd little party hat perched on his head. It was only then that we started to ask, Is this guy kidding or what? Nikita Kruschev was similarly supposed to scare the daylights out of us, and he did for a while. Then he took off his shoe, whacked it on his desk, and the bad-guy boss started to look an awful lot more like a small-time clown.

It's not just the big-ticket villains who wither on closer examination. Ted Bundy, one of the coolest criminal customers in recent memory, was reduced to Jell-O in the final days before his execution, sweatily offering up clues to his other killings if only the state would grant him the stay he suddenly, desperately wanted. Jeffrey McDonald, the Green Beret captain famously tried 20 years ago for the murder of his family, was the very picture of the wrongly accused man, until he took the stand and descended into whining and self-pity — pointing a finger with precisely the kind of you're-all-against-me petulance children use when they're caught at something they're trying to deny. For his inadvertent candor, he's serving three life terms.

Whatever else evil might be, it is most reliably a fractal, one of those naturally recurring patterns — like the day-to-day and year-to-year fluctuations of the stock market — that repeat themselves at all scales. The Halloween vandal who trashes a house and the Balkan despot who trashes a nation are both cut from the same black cloth. Their sense of impunity, of adolescent entitlement, of imagined roguish grandeur are identical — even if the size of their respective stages are different. For that reason, they should be treated the same. Slap them down, lock them up, expose them for the small and crude things they almost always are. For our own sakes, however, let's stop making them the giant figures we seem to need them to be.