The Futility of ‘Shrinking’ Evil

And Other Lessons From the Aurora

‘Dark Knight’ Massacre


Jay B Gaskill

→This article is also posted on The Policy Think Site at –

Grave wickedness, especially when it takes the form of real Evil is a deep puzzle for all the sophisticated modern and postmodern minds among us because it exposes the naked vulnerability of a weakened moral immune system.  When the “can’t we all get along?” models just don’t cut it; when “that nice young man” executes a bloodbath; when that ancient most ancient enemy of humanity surfaces – the bland face of intelligent malevolence – our modern sensibilities prompt us to seek refuge in the medical, therapeutic models.  We tend to do this because we are clinging to a monumental lie: that all human-on-human “badness” is psychosis, or a cry for help, the result of oppressive social conditions, or of neurological wiring issues.

None of these social, physiological or psychological conditions belong to the moral category.  That category is Evil, which is a topic about which I have often been asked to share my insights. As a criminal defense attorney, a careful observer of the human condition, my experiences in New York City near ground zero on 9-11-01 led to some reflection, then to a panel discussion in the Bar Area.  As a result, I arrived at some fresh (and old fashioned) insights. The elevator version: Evil with a capital “E” is real; it is an overused and underappreciated term; in my moral universe it a narrow and very dangerous moral category.  When encountered in the real world, Evil is that which entails a robust, intelligent – even ruthless – moral response among the morally aware. But Evil presents difficulties for modern minds, because for many of these misguided souls, Evil does not even exist.

{Two of my essays on Evil are here – and}.

James Egan Holmes (yes, we will name the perp.) was not a mental patient.  We are told that he was an honors graduate student in neurological science, one who had screwed up his comprehensive examinations the preceding semester, and was at risk of being dumped from the program. His fascination with neuroscience was evidently entangled with a fascination with the fictional icon of Evil, the Joker.  A faculty member at Colorado reportedly thought of Holmes immediately when he first heard about the murders. Why just the professor?  Why not earlier? Holmes stocked his apartment like a military fortress.  Yet it seems that no one alerted anyone else.  Why?

The anthropologist-columnist Dr. Gwen Dewar has written a very insightful piece –

The Colorado movie theater massacre: What can we do now?


Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.


“How do these people slip by? How do we miss the potential killers in our midst? It’s not that nobody notices. It’s that people rarely act or intervene. And that, I’m thinking, is a relatively new problem for human kind.

“For most of human history, our kind lived in villages or small, mobile, hunter-gatherer bands. Everybody knew each other and kept very close tabs. If somebody was antisocial, violent, or psychologically-disturbed, people recognized it and got involved. That had to, in fact, because they knew their lot was a common one. Our ancestors depended on their next-door neighbors for survival.”

For the whole column, go to .


We have lost what the social scientist, Francis Fukuyama calls social capital (see his book The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order).  Mr. Holmes has evidently lost more than that – the vital connection to the common moral order.


It seems that Holmes was reportedly infatuated with the evil character from the earlier chapter in the Dark Knight trilogy, the Joker.

Holmes aped the Joker even to the point of dying his hair orange before he slaughtered as many of the Dark Night movie audience as he could.

Malevolence often is promoted and transmitted by art. I have coined the term “malogens” to describe how such culturally transmitted pathogenic images can deeply affect susceptible minds.  My analysis – and the introduction of the term – was prompted by my study of a Satanic criminal case in the Bay Area {See my article at }

The term malogens was picked up (with attribution) by the  political scientist, Dr. Maria Chang.

See her piece in the New Oxford Review, Peering into the Abyss, at ).

As Dr. Chang pointed out, “Ledger’s character, the Joker, is more than a sociopathic master criminal. Instead, reviewers use the language of the supernatural, calling him “demonic” and “diabolical” — “a hound fresh out of hell,” “a vivid, compelling picture of naked, nihilistic evil…with almost preternatural power,” “a truly frightening vision,” and “like Satan.” Michael Caine, who plays Batman’s butler Alfred, said that he found Ledger’s performance so terrifying and disturbing that he sometimes forgot his lines.”

I agree with Dr. Chang.  When the actor Heath Ledger played the Joker in the Dark Knight he inhabited that persona so fully that he tipped his own moral balance, falling far into the bleak abyss that he could not recover.  It was a case of malogenic infection.

In my review of the Dark Knight movie, Bleak Knight (written from a Nevada motel after just seeing the flick) I believe I may foreshadowed the lasting effect of the Joker’s malevolence on another susceptible mind, that of the Aurora, Colorado movie murderer, James Holmes.  These were my thoughts:


I think the Joker killed Heath Ledger.

The Dark Knight is a toxic film – its release without further drastic editing was irresponsible. The silent disappointment of the Batman fans who walked out of the film without waiting for the credits was a warning sign. Heads-up for the producers: This film might even doom the franchise – even if it makes money. Please don’t do this again. ‘Do what?’ you ask…

Whenever a film does as well as this one does in presenting a vivid, compelling picture of naked, nihilistic evil, then endows that evil with almost preternatural power, you need to add a balancing grace and core optimism.

This was a movie with fine performances and no grace.

In the film, the evil Joker, brilliantly portrayed by the late Heath Ledger, sets up a malign ‘social experiment’ in which the people in two crowded ferries, rigged with explosives, are invited to blow up the other boat before midnight – in order to escape the same fate themselves. When each boat declines to blow up the other, the film presents an opportunity for balancing grace. But that opportunity was one thrown away in the ensuing mayhem.

The end piece, in which the crusading DA, now hideously disfigured, has been successfully degraded by the Joker, attempts a kidnapping, then is killed, amounts to one measure of darkness too much. The film ends with Batman scurrying away, chased by the police for crimes he did not commit.


We live in a video game culture in which the boundaries between the real and the virtual are thin indeed.  Without a robust moral firewall, an increasingly large number of morally weakened minds are left vulnerable to the pervasive influence of the malogens that seethe though our lives, carried by the amoral miracle of modern technology.  In a lecture on the criminal mind (see I concluded with this observation–

“We ignore malogens at our peril.  Because we live in an information saturated age, we will never shut off all the malogenic input.  We need a firewall.  Fortunately, the firewall technology already exists.  It is moral character… eight thousand year old technology.

“But character is inspired, not installed like a computer program. Character is forged by trial, not played like a video game. Character is sustained by faith.  Yes, faith. All trust relationships are founded in faith. No institution, whether religious or secular, owns the patent.  Faith is open source software.  It was issued along with the human capacity for moral intelligence by the Author of the Moral Law.”

Old fashioned?  Perhaps.  Obsolete? Never.

Copyright © 2012 by Jay B Gaskill The author is a California lawyer; who served as the 7th chief Public Defender for the County of Alameda, State of California.

Forwards, links and quotations with attributions are welcome and encouraged.  For everything else, please contact the author by email at .

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