Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University 

Edited 8/1/16 An earlier version was published in Educational Horizons

wick.ed (wik’id), adj. 1. evil or morally bad in principle or practice: sinful; vicious; iniquitous.      

As a kid I once found myself cornered by a neighborhood bully. He was bigger by a third and we both knew he could beat me up. A crowd gathered as Jimmy, seemingly aggrieved by something or other, probed and picked, looking for the slightest excuse to take me apart. I tried, but with no success, to figure out what I might have done to set this guy on me. I also tried to be as inoffensive as possible and still maintain my honor.

Nothing worked. I couldn’t remember offering an affront, and no matter how inoffensive I tried to be, Jimmy’s escalation continued. Finally, as threats turned to shoves and the crowd began shouting delightedly, “Fight! Fight!” I blurted out, “Why pick on me?” To my astonishment, Jimmy laughed malevolently and sneered; “You didn’t do anything, stupid! This is fun!”

Eventually I decided to give up trying to placate bullies. Clearly, that was a humiliating waste of time. These guys didn’t give a damn what I said or did. I simply was available and vulnerable, like the cat one neighborhood nut case gleefully dunked in a bucket of roofing tar. It was safe, sadistic “fun” to push me around. The sort of “fun” that rarely is considered when we teach children conflict resolution. The sort of “fun” that is pure evil. Not “evil” in a theistic sense, necessarily, but in the sense of an extreme form of moral wrong.

My new strategy, encouraged by my father, was to make sure that the costs of bullying me exceeded the benefits. I might still get beaten up; but even if it required a sucker punch, stick or stone, the bully who aggressed on me would pay with pain. This strategy, it turned out, worked far better than trying not to “offend.” So I ultimately dealt with Jimmy by taking a swipe at him with a very substantial stick. I missed and he pummeled me. But he didn’t bother me again.

I have become much older and, hopefully, a little wiser since dealing with Jimmy. But something that mystified me then still puzzles me now. Why do some people, kids included, deeply enjoy inflicting pain on others? Why, in effect, are some people wicked?

There is the orthodox theological explanation that everyone, children included, has a fallen nature and will ultimately chose evil unless given forceful rules and incentives for not doing so. But that doesn’t do much for me. I’ve always had trouble imagining new-borns as morally depraved. Deficiencies in a child’s family also might foster wickedness. But Jimmy’s family didn’t seem particularly nasty. In fact, Jimmy’s father once made him a three-quarter scale ride-in replica of an Indy race-car that was the envy of the neighborhood. Besides, I knew kids who came from real hellish family situations who were kind and considerate.

Some philosophers argue that no one actually chooses evil. Some of these thinkers maintain that evil simply is the absence of good. Thus, it cannot be chosen. Others muse that people who appear to choose evil are simply pursuing their own interests at the expense of others. Beyond philosophy, in places like our schools for instance, the therapeutic model is ascendant. What appears to be pure evil, we are assured, is really just heredity and environment coming together to form a disorder that is then “acted out.”

The problem with all these explanations is that they do no justice to the hideously evil events of just this century much less human history. Do Hitler, Himmler, or Eichman represent the mere absence of good. Were Stalin, Beria, Sadam Hussein, or Jeffrey Dahmer just pursuing their own interests. Were the Hutus, who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, simply “acting out?” Weren’t at least some of these people consciously, knowingly, choosing to be wicked?

OK, maybe some adults do that, you say, but not children. Perhaps you remember James Bulger? He was the two year old who was lured away from his mother in a Liverpool shopping mall by two ten-year-old boys who proceeded to bash James to death with bricks and leave him on train tracks to be run over, hoping to counterfeit a tragic accident. If this wasn’t wicked, what was it?

Remember too, every monster who ever existed once was a child. Did, say, Jeffrey Dahmer, or John Wayne Gacey, or Ted Bundy, or Richard Speck or Gary Heidnik suddenly become monsters only when they reached their majority? Or did they begin their decent into utter wickedness long before they could vote?