It was important to me as a kid that evil people be smart. My father’s education and erudition made his awfulness seem more…purposeful, perhaps, more like a brilliant idea gone horribly wrong than an accident of testosterone. It’s somehow worse to be beaten by a thug than by a genius.
You take the comforts where you can.
Which is why Robert Graysmith’s book Zodiac was so important to me when I read it in the late 1980s: I needed to know that some of the people who hurt us are just too brilliant to stop, and there was nothing we could do.
I thought about that yesterday when I read the Zodiac killer’s 340-character message from more than fifty years ago, cracked by some brilliant sleuths. As expected, it’s a window into the mind of a troubled genius:
I HOPE YOU ARE HAVING LOTS OF FUN IN TRYING TO CATCH ME
THAT WASNT ME ON THE TV SHOW
WHICH BRINGS UP A POINT ABOUT ME
I AM NOT AFRAID OF THE GAS CHAMBER
BECAUSE IT WILL SEND ME TO PARADICE ALL THE SOONER
BECAUSE I NOW HAVE ENOUGH SLAVES TO WORK FOR ME
WHERE EVERYONE ELSE HAS NOTHING WHEN THEY REACH PARADICE
SO THEY ARE AFRAID OF DEATH
I AM NOT AFRAID BECAUSE I KNOW THAT MY NEW LIFE IS
LIFE WILL BE AN EASY ONE IN PARADICE DEATH
Or…maybe not so much.
What’s interesting about this message (other than it being almost certainly written by an acne-scarred edgelord beating off in his mother’s basement), is that it took half a century to decipher not so much because of its intricate execution or sophisticated message, but because the code was sloppy and the message a banal repetition of his letters to the press.
All this time, we’ve been applying diabolical logic to a man with the mind of a 13-year-old boy who assaulted the easiest targets he could manage and claimed credit for the ones he couldn’t.
(Which does not diminish the hard work of the codebreakers at all; the crack is an amazing achievement of patience and insight.)
Hannah Arendt wrote long ago about how disappointing the “master race” of Nazis proved to be once they finally stood in the dock for their crimes, and I found the same thing when I spoke to my father again after twenty years of silence. As I listened to his misapplied vocabulary and cliched insight, I realized that he was never smarter than any of the people he harmed…only more comfortable faking it.
For decades of my life, I’ve studied (and written about) terrible people, trying to find some malevolent intelligence: Lee Harvey Oswald. Gary Ridgeway. John Wayne Gacy. Joseph De Angelo. Dennis Rader. Ted Bundy. Charles Manson. Idi Amin. Jim Jones. The 9/11 hijackers. Osama bin Laden.
My father was nowhere near as bad as the Nazis or any of these other men, of course, but he was the earliest reason in my life to question what good people could do about bad ones. What do they have in common, aside from being males who feel entitled to harm others for their pleasure?
For a time, we applied the best intelligence we had to stopping them, and when that didn’t work, we thought it was because they were smarter than us.
But when we finally found them, they all turned out to be lucky idiots who flowed between the gaps of our assumptions. They were all mediocre people who found evil easier than even the smallest effort for good and who patched their inadequacies with shortcuts and con games and violence.
The reason we didn’t catch them right away wasn’t that it was hard to think up to their level…it’s that it was hard to think down to it, to take on the banal reasoning of desperate losers.
I’m not sure what that means for thwarting these horrible people while they’re at the height of their power, except perhaps that we should remember that every single one of them turned out to be lesser than us, not greater. Every single one.
I have no idea who the Zodiac is, though I suspect that someone like Arthur Leigh Allen is perhaps pathetic enough to be a likely culprit. What I do know is that when we discover his identity, he will be a staggering disappointment of a human being.
Such men cause great harm and havoc, but their times are always brief.
Sometimes only one term.