Jani Kaaro is a scientific journalist, a researcher and encyclopedist, and he has some of the most insightful columns that I have read, time after time. I'm going to translate a few of his articles, if you have time and interest, check it out.
The Curse of Azazel
In the movie 'Fallen', a detective played by Denzel Washington is chasing after a serial killer. It's not a simple task, as the killer is an ancient evil spirit, Azazel. Azazel takes control of a person, makes them do evil things and passes on to another person with a single touch. As it strides along it keeps singing the old classic 'Time is on my side', as if to mock the detective that evil lives forever.
It's not a very good movie, but a demon in a crowd moving from one person to the next is a good allegory of how we seem to imagine evil. Evil is as old as mankind, it comes from the outside and chooses innocent bystanders as its victims. In this column, I'm going to tell you about a brave woman who stared Azazel straight in the eyes.
Penny Beerntsen was on the shores of Lake Michigan with her family in the summer of 1985. As the rest of the family was enjoying a picnic, she decided to go for a run and she jogged along the deserted beach. Then she saw a man who was approaching her. There was something ominous about him and she could feel in her bones what was yet to come. She tried to escape, but in a panic ran into the water. He caught her, dragged her off to the side and raped her.
In a sense, Beerntsen was an ideal victim of a crime. Even though the man beat and choked her until she finally passed out, she thought until the last moment of imprinting his face into her mind. If she'd make it out of this, she would recognize him anywhere.
That same night she was helping a police sketch artist to draft a picture and looked through photos of known sex offenders. When she asked if they had a suspect, she was shown a photo. The man looked like him.
The following day a group of men were lined up. When Beerntsen saw the man in the photo, she could feel the blood running from her face. There he was. The rapist. "I am absolutely sure", she said to the officers. "It was him".
The rapist, 23-year-old Steven Avery, was sentenced to prison for 32 years. She tried to return to normality, but realized that everything wasn't alright. She did not feel good. She understood that the rapist still had a hold on her.
Beerntsen didn't go to therapy. She wanted to understand what happened and studied to become a crime conciliator visiting prisons. "I thought that in prisons I would meet monsters, who are somehow different than us. However, there I understood that sometimes we are all victims and evildoers", she told to author Kathryn Schulz.
As Beerntsen had begun working in prisons, Avery was trying to get out. He appealed his sentence multiple times, without results, but his stubbornness irked Beerntsen. Why doesn't he give up? Finally, an organization called Innocent Project, solving unclear court cases, took Avery's case. That made her even more nervous. Then one day in 2003, she looked unbelievingly outside her window as her lawyer pulled up to her driveway. That was the moment when she realized what had happened. Avery wasn't the rapist. She had made a mistake. A terrible mistake. She collapsed and only wanted to apologize.
It's hard not to highlight how unusual Beerntsens reaction was. The Innocent Project has freed nearly 300 wrongly sentenced people from US prisons, and most of them were arrested due to a flawed eyewitness testimony. Still, when they are deemed innocent, the first reactions of the eyewitnesses, police, detectives, crime lab technicians and prosecutors isn't to admit their mistakes. On the contrary, they do everything in their power to show that the release of a convict is unfound. Even if all evidence pointed against their argument, they will grab any possible straw, even the most ridiculous ones, to enable them from facing the truth. But not Beerntsen.
When Avery was released from jail, the hopelessness of the situation started unraveling to Beerntsen. Not only because an innocent man had spent 18 years in prison due to her mistake. DNA results had revealed the true culprit, George Allen. Allen had raped and beaten eight other women after her. Her mistake had also affected their lives. It came to be, that Allen had actually been another main suspect, but the line of inquiry was not continued when Beerntsen had given "a positive identification".
The time after Avery's release was the toughest situation in her life. Much tougher than it had been after her rape. But now she was the evil one and Avery was the victim.
First it seemed like the story would have a happy ending. Beerntsen and Avery met and he forgave her. But then a terrible epilogue unfolded. Not four years after his release, 25-year-old Wisconsian Teresa Halbach was raped and murdered. It was Avery.
It's been a long journey, but we are closing in on the point of this column. That is how the strategies, how Beerntsen and the rest of the world reacted to this news, were like from a different planet. The media, police, prosecutors and the larger audience immediately called Avery's release into question. There must have been a mistake in the DNA test. Maybe the samples had been mixed up? Maybe lawyers had schemed Avery to freedom? Avery must have also raped Beerntsen. He was a rapist, after all.
Beerntsen didn't believe in conspiracies. On the contrary, she now asked herself if she had something to do with Halbach's murder. What does 18 years of jail do to an innocent man? What kind of bitterness and hate must have Avery carried inside him?
The reactions of everyone else tells of a phenomenon, that American social psychologist Roy Baumeister calls "The Myth of Pure Evil". It means that we always see evil as categorical. When a person does evil, they do it because they are evil. They do evil for evil motives; sadistics pleasure from unleashing pain; the victims are always innocent bystanders, who due to poor luck just happened to cross the path of evil.
Baumeister has studied cases of violence from both the perspectives of the evildoer and the victim, and he hasn't found any foundation to the myth of pure evil. From an evildoer's perspective their actions are often justified. They answer provocations, protect their honour or simply lose control due to something done or said by another person.
From the victim's perspective, Baumeister noticed that few are as innocent as the myth seems to say. Most murders were the cause of a drawn-out provocation on both sides and spirals of vengeance - sometimes it was sheer coincidence who became the victim and who became the murderer. In over half of studied domestic violence cases, both parties had been using violence.
Baumeister highlights, that when put against a background the myth of pure evil becomes problematic. It forces us to look at the setup of victim and evildoer as a fight between good and evil, where we let our moral reactions do the choice for us. Moral reactions aren't based on thought or weighing things evenly - they are automatic and as immediate as getting goosebumps. When we let our moral choices take over, we automatically side with the victim, but it is simply that - one side of the story. By doing this, we never grasp the big picture nor learn to to understand the real causes for violence.
Why didn't Penny Beerntsen go with the flow of demonizing Avery? I don't know the answer, but I believe that she already knew too much to believe in the illusion of pure evil. She had been a reconciliator between victims and their assailants and seen all the associated shades of grey. She had seen how quickly and randomly the victim and assailant could have changed places. She had also personally experienced that making a terrible mistake with terrifying consequences does not automatically make you a completely terrible person. People had a hard time understanding her. One of the key aspects of the pure evil myth is that those who attempt to show others the shades of grey - they are in cohorts with evil.
A long time ago the Ancient Greeks gathered into amphiteathers to watch tragedies. They usually depicted a hero, who was not necessarily good or evil, but pretty normal. The hero lived a normal life, until making a mistake one day - not because of being evil, maybe just out of thoughtlessness. That mistake, however, became a turning point, causing the hero to lose everything important little by little until all that was left was a dying, human wreck.
The audience witnessed with their own eyes, how a person walked towards their inevitable doom with no way to stop it, and every attempt to change fate just drove them deeper into the depths of tragedy. They felt that what happened to the hero could also happen to them, if they fell under the same circumstances. They understood how fast their lives could crumble if their bad sides could take control in the right circumstances.
When the audience left the show, they mostly felt sadness and empathy towards the hero of the tragedy, and had a deep feeling of how arbitrarily cruel fate is to man. This advantage isn't found in the heroes of the tragedies, where we can only see a hooded figure holding their head down in a court room, blazoned in the headlines of media outlets.
To us, they are Azazel in human form.
Does Crichton smoke? Does a bear shit in the woods? -Rex
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