by Libby Hellmann
One of the things that strikes me about Chicago’s media coverage of the Family Secrets trial are the descriptions of witnesses. Nick Calabrese, once one of the most dangerous Mafioisi in the Outfit, wears a “gray sweatsuit and rounded eyeglasses. With his white hair neatly parted, he looked more like a doughy banker in his pajamas than a "made" member of the mob.” When the son of mobster Frank Calabrese testified, the Sun Times said, “at first he had a little tremor in his voice. He appeared nervous.”
The media have done their job-- they’ve humanized evil. I’m not criticizing. As crime fiction writers, we do it all the time. We introduce characters we know to be evil, dress them in designer clothes, give them sympathetic traits, and in an effort to fully develop them, even give them a compassionate back story. The bad guys had a deprived childhood… abusive father… alcoholic mother. Whatever. Readers might not root for them, but at least they “understand.”
What I keep wondering is whether, over time, our attempt to humanize evil has watered down the concept. Just what does it take for us to recognize evil these days?
Fifty years ago, the Outfit was one of the most evil organizations known to man. Elliot Ness was a hero. But now, in our Soprano-fueled culture, the Outfit yields not much more than a yawn. Is it familiarity? Too much exposure? Familiarity is supposed to breed contempt, not boredom. To a degree maybe that’s happened. We perceive the Outfit as less muscular, more feeble. As Kevin pointed out in his last blog, the holy picture ritual almost made them out to be buffoons.
Our tolerance for evil seems, like so much else in our culture, to have coarsened. We search out “new and improved” evil-doers… the Russian mob.. Asian gangs… Arab terrorists. Quick: which are worse: Nazis or Al Qaeda? Serial killers or pedophiles?
As kids we knew the evil monster in the closet would get us if we didn’t say our prayers, brush our teeth, share our toys. Today, our moral compasses seem so skewed that only the vilest, most reprehensible monsters can rile us. We seem willing to accept, even condone, a laissez faire attitude toward guilt and innocence. (And yes, I’m generalizing to make a point).
But it does become problematic. I’m about to start a new novel. Usually my first step is to define the evil I’ll be writing about. What is it? Who is practicing it? How will it be revealed? Honestly, this time I’m flummoxed—I’ve done the corrupt politician, the neo-Nazi, the vengeful real estate developer, Big Oil, the amoral father. What’s left? An African dictator? Health insurers? The current administration? Whoever killed Kennedy? It all seems so ho-hum. Been there done that…
So, I ask you – writers, readers, observers of today’s society – what do you believe is true evil? What is the worst kind of sin?
Btw, for a study of systemic evil in war, I highly recommend Paul Verhoevens’ film ”Black Book.” It’s a stunning examination of good and evil, and how our perceptions can be upended.