Getting inside the monster's mind

What goes on in the mind of a monster? The two beasts at the forefront of the national consciousness right now are Saddam Hussein, captured last night, and Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr., the suspect in the kidnapping and likely murder of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin.

Saddam’s crimes are on a larger scale, but I suspect the mental workings of a murderous tyrant are the same as those of a psychopathic rapist like Rodriguez. They live by twisted rules. They show no apparent remorse for the suffering they cause.

The two great criminals of the 20th century, Hitler and Stalin, had brilliant minds which where employed to evil ends. I often wonder what we could have learned had Hitler had been captured alive, or if Stalin had been overthrown and tried for deaths of tens of millions.

What can we learn today? Rodriguez isn’t talking, but apparently Saddam Hussein is. I hope that in the course of these trials some insight is gained into the workings of the murderous mind.

There is no way to bring such people a justice commensurate with the crimes committed. A hanging is too quick and easy. In the dark corners of one’s mind, one dreams up methods of retribution that involve medieval forms of torture.

But the temptation of such methods must be resisted in a civilized society. For civility to be triumphant, a society must rise above eye-for-an-eye justice and concentrate instead upon the pragmatic goal of making the world safe.

It is easy to be enraged with the lawyer defending Rodriguez, or with the slow grinding of the justice system even when guilt is so obvious. However, it is that same system that would be our greatest ally if any one of us were ever falsely accused.

We forget that the justice system of the United States was built from the very beginning more to protect the innocent than to punish the guilty. The Founding Fathers were adamant that it would be better for a guilty person to get off than it would be for an innocent person to be punished. I am glad of this, as frustrating it can be to watch the justice system at work in the case of monsters like Rodriguez.

With retribution ruled out, all we can do is put the monster away and learn what we can learn.

I recall in Churchill’s World War II memoirs his tale of a night spent drinking with Stalin at the Kremlin. Churchill knew Stalin was a monster, but he also knew Stalin was essential in the fight to rid the world of Hitler. Since he was in the same room with a monster and knew it, Churchill decided to learn what he could learn. It was his chance, he said later, to interview the devil.

Taking on the role of scholar, Churchill jovially asked Stalin questions such as: which was more difficult, killing millions of peasants in order to communalize agriculture in the Ukraine, or fighting Hitler?”

Oh, Stalin replied, fighting Hitler was nothing compared to killing millions of his own citizens. Stalin had no moral compunctions about killing his own people; he just found the job more difficult than the job of killing Germans.

I admit that I dream of what it would be like to be a mouse in the corner that night in the Kremlin, or to be able to watch Saddam questioned in captivity--my curiosity about these horrible human mutations leads me to think that sudden death for any murderous psychopath is not only too good a fate for them, but would eliminate an invaluable opportunity to study how these brilliantly horrible minds work.