I often talk about working with survivors of trauma, abuse, sexual assault and other forms of victimization. I’ve also worked with soldiers who have killed or injured others, sometimes during combat, out of self-defense, out of fear, out of government initiative. Then there are the rare times that, reluctantly, I have seen individuals who have admitted to inflicting harm on innocent people– acts against children, women, bystanders. For no reason. And yet, that is where my job starts. Finding meaning behind horrific acts.
As shocked and devastated– and genuinely pissed– as we feel when we hear about senseless destructiveness, can we be willing to step toward it rather than away from it? When a crazed shooter murders Batman fans in a theater, or a gunman opens fire on several people at a suburban mall, someone will be directly asking the killer, “Why?” If we are going to understand, and then prevent such atrocities, we will have to face them head on. We have to also face some uncomfortable questions. Are humans intrinsically evil? Are we fundamentally hostile, antisocial, sadistic? Is the Dark Side real?
I draw upon fictional characters because they allow us to explore humanity in a very safe way. One of the most intriguing, most recognizably evil characters in our lives is Commander of the Death Star and Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader. There is no doubt that the Star Wars villain embodies what our society considers anti-social pathological behavior: Aggression, terrorism, kidnapping, torture, and assisting in the murder of an entire planet’s inhabitants. Despite these atrocities, we certainly are drawn to him–we’re deeply fascinated by his relentless quest to achieve political control and power over an entire universe. I believe we’re magnetized to him because we want to understand his fundamental motives. Underneath his intimidating black armor, we know a part of him is still human. And we are compelled to connect with it.
How do we learn evil?
A fundamental question we ask ourselves is whether demonism is in our natural human makeup. Is it something inherent we are born with? Or is it something created from something outside of us? Darth Vader, the ruthless, unforgiving tyrant we see patrolling the Death Star corridors, did not start out that way. Years before he was Darth Vader, he was known as Anakin Skywalker, son of a slave, Shmi Skywalker. Young Ani grew up isolated, subordinate, debased. Living with one cruel master after another, little Anakin Skywalker experienced early lessons of destitution, rejection, and low self-worth. These early-life experiences do not predict adult pathology alone, but they do constitute part of a larger formula that could lead to a destructive tendency.
“He was raised as a slave. Ever since I’ve known Skywalker, he’s struggled to put that part of his life behind him. He must get past it eventually.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi, in Star Wars: The Clone Wars comic series, Issue #2
There is Good in Him: Missed Connections or Faulty Wires?
Despite starting off in a bleak world, Anakin makes attempts to connect with others– and the universe hands him opportunities to form meaningful, positive bonds that might lead him towards good and away from evil. Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn essentially liberates young Anakin from slavery and, although Anakin has to separate from his mother, recruits Anakin to travel the galaxy on quests with the Jedis. Qui-Gon senses much good in Anakin and believes this little boy “will bring balance to the force” (a unifying, metaphysical power shared by the Jedi). Although Anakin later becomes a padawan learner (an apprentice) to Obi-Wan Kenobi, it is Qui-Gon that becomes Anakin’s first parental figure after his mother. Not even having a concept of a father until Qui-Gon, Anakin experiences what it is like to have a father figure, a mentor, an ally–but most importantly, someone who truly believes in him. In fact, Qui-Gon believes in Anakin’s abilities as a potential Jedi Knight so strongly that he disregards members of the Jedi Council who do not agree that Anakin is “the Chosen One.” Early in Anakin’s path to becoming a Jedi Apprentice, Qui-Gon is tragically killed by the Sith villain, Darth Maul. The loss of Qui-Gon had to be powerful for Anakin, particularly after he was then handed over to Obi-Wan, a mentor who never had the same unconditional faith in him.
The next person to show signs of guidance and mentorship—despite those signs being incredibly misleading— is Senator Palpatine, who would later take advantage of Anakin’s emotional vulnerabilities and lead him to the Dark Side. What would have happened if Qui-Gon did not die? Was this a missed opportunity? Would Anakin have developed a more solid sense of right and wrong? And after so many disrupted or dismembered relationships he has had–separation from his mother at a young age, losing Qui-Gon unexpectedly, the death of his young wife, can we expect him to form positive bonds as an adult without fearing that they, too, will be severed? With a weak neurological framework for healthy social bonding, we can expect Anakin’s affiliative behavior to be underdeveloped. Later in his career as a Sith Lord, after transforming to Darth Vader, we still see some signs of Anakin’s ability to connect with others. He can sense his own son’s presence, Luke Skywalker, stars away. Behind the mask, machinery, and wires, are there any traces of the human need to connect emotionally?
What perpetuates evil?
Psychologists know that destructiveness results from or is associated from feelings of guilt, fear, rage, disgust, shame, hopelessness. Yoda was not wrong when he warned: “Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they.” Some of us experience these negative emotions and find ways to overcome them or turn them into constructive positive behavior or into ways that strengthen us. Others cannot regulate these feelings and turn toward destructiveness. As a young adult studying to be a Jedi Knight, already wrestling with his feelings that the world is unfair, unjust, and hostile toward him, Skywalker learns his mother is kidnapped, enslaved, and tortured to death by a tribe of Tusken Raiders (Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones). Questioning the authenticity of his Jedi mentor Qui-Gon Jinn and disenchanted by the Jedi Council, Anakin experiences the death of his mother as the loss of the only good in the universe, his failure to keep his world safe and moral. He blames himself for her death. Enraged, he enacts his first atrocity: murdering the entire Tusken tribe. Although radical, his decision to murder his mother’s captors and oppressors might be seen as symbolically justified—the destruction of their entire camp represents Anakin battling and destroying the people who have oppressed him in his early life as a slave, cruel masters, the society that spat on him. He enacts horrifying violence out of feelings of shame, anger, and grief. While horrifying, his destruction of an entire community isn’t senseless.
Depicted both in novelization and film, one of the most unsettling events is when Anakin murders all the younglings in the Jedi Temple. Already having violated the Jedi Code of not killing a helpless adversary by decapitating Count Dooku and assisting Darth Sidious in murdering Mace Windu, Anakin commits the most horrifying and unassisted act when he brutally slays the group of Jedi younglings in the Temple. Interestingly, this is his first act of evil as “Sith Lord Darth Vader,” as named by Darth Sidious. While he is still operating from deeply felt emotions of anger and grief, we do not get the sense that Vader is killing for personal gratification. That is, Darth Sidious has convinced him that the Jedi need to be exterminated for the Republic to remain intact (political reasons) and for Anakin’s wife, Padme, to remain safe (protective reasons). He may even feel at this time that he’s operating based on self-defense because he knows the Jedi will oppose him for aligning with Sidious and aiding him in murdering Mace Windu. His initiative to exterminate the Jedi (i.e., Order 66) includes all Jedi, even the young children.
“Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” – Obi Wan Kenobi, in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Evil for a Purpose
Although we know of several events that were pivotal to Anakin’s transformation to Darth Vader– the death of his mother, slaughtering an entire tribe, killing Count Dooku, and force-choking his own beloved wife Padme who later dies during childbirth– he served for a great while as a Jedi Knight and defender of the Galactic Republic. He was considered a hero during his years in battle. Not unlike soldiers in combat missions who are capable of fighting terrorism, injustice, genocide, exploitation, oppression and other evils, Anakin takes on the role of a fearless warrior, protecting millions of civilians across the galaxy. In this way, creating suffering, ending life, and other forms of destructiveness are justified and can be seen as brave and noble. However, when the Jedi were plotting to take over the Republic, Anakin’s mission became more politically rigid, more grounded in his unrealistic belief of political power through methods of force and aggression. He seems to lose sight of the Jedi mission of pursuing peace, and chooses paths that allow him violence, just as some soldiers who have experienced decades of combat come to even desire that dangerous environment or even begin to create it for themselves. That is, warzones and the adrenaline they trigger become the familiar, and are almost sought by combatants because they bring purpose and outlets for anger, anxiety, and aggression. Long after the Clone Wars, as Commander of the Death Star and leader of the Imperial Army, Darth Vader creates and perpetuates violence, exterminating any human, creature, or droid that gets in his way.
“There is no justice – only power.” – Darth Vader, in The Force Unleashed II Graphic Novel
Masks, Capes and Anonymity
“The barrier between good and evil is permeable and nebulous.” – Dr. Philip Zimbardo, Social Psychologist
After becoming permanently disfigured and nearly burned to death on the lava planet of Mustafar, Darth Vader undergoes a physical and functional transformation with the help of The Emperor. He becomes a cyborg: half human, half robot. His movement, senses, and even his breathing relies on machinery. Towering in height, face obscured completely by a reflective black mask, his physical appearance finally matches his menacing behavior. Hidden by his cybernetic parts and his armor, fully developed Commander Vader perpetrates some of the most terrifying and violent acts– warfare, torture, assisted genocide. His mask and helmet may actually facilitate his evildoing. Studies have shown that anonymity and deindividuation are associated with increased aggression and rule-breaking. Some of the most famous and widely cited psychological studies comes from work that shows that mask-wearing disinhibits typically restrained behavior.
Good vs. Evil
“Anakin Skywalker- that name no longer has any meaning for me.” – Darth Vader, in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
In “Darth Vader, Carl Rogers, and Self-Organizing Wisdom” psychologist Dr. Arthur C. Bohart posits that like any human, Darth Vader isn’t born with inherent “goodness” or “badness.” Rather, he is born with the capability or potential to enact evil or good, that, if given client-centered therapy he would begin to see the broader picture, question his own constructs of himself, and eventually “balance his desires for power and revenge with a more deeply human side.” This is essentially the direction in which Vader goes at the end of Return of the Jedi when he aligns with his son Luke and overthrows Emperor Palpatine, the ultimate symbol of evil throughout the Star Wars saga. This action represents Vader’s transformation to an integrated, self-actualized whole person who can make decisions reflecting his ability to proactively grow and adapt. As an audience, our reaction is equally complex: it’s not that Vader is back to his original “good” self. He has turned inward and reflected. He has moved past the simplistic good vs. evil paradigm and has reclaimed his complex personhood. He has, in fact, reached what positive psychologists call a “self-organizing wisdom,” the ability to move from the barren and meaningless in life to finding one’s own positive features. Courage, determination, perseverance, responsibility, spirituality, and …hope.
The dark side of our nature– we cannot get away from it, ignore it, or avoid it. There is a reason we’re fascinated with fictional villains– we’re allowed to get close to them in order to understand the dark side of humanity. We try to separate the destructiveness from the person. Evil, therefore, is the perpetration of destructive acts, not the person. In our efforts to understand their motives, we cannot deny them the path to treatment and healing. An important clarification: If we get closer to explaining evil acts, we do not make aggressors, murderers, rapists less culpable. For some of us, it is our job to identify pathology and illness, to clarify its origins, and to prevent it.
“Mom, you said that the biggest problem in the universe is no one helps each other.” – Young Anakin Skywalker
Psychological researchers have indicated that human behavior–good or evil– is influenced by a range of factors that are sometimes not even under an individual’s control, including genetics, biology, childhood experiences and socialization. We know that whatever pieces of the puzzle we discover, the picture will indeed be a complex one.
All of us are susceptible to evil. There are harmful, everyday ways we hurt each other, through lying, malicious gossip, blaming others, marginalization, prejudgment. Although actions are what causes suffering, we all experience hostile and malevolent feelings sometimes. There is something inhuman in all of us, something imperfect and flawed, almost making harmful tendencies a part of human nature.