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Why are bad guys bad?

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Dark thoughts? (DerrickT/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

When we talk about badness and human nature, we keep smacking into a persistent problem: how do you explain cruelty? James Shapiro, professor of English at Columbia University, zeroes in on the drama of this question with a maddening insight from Shakespeare, by way of the villainous Iago.

And that leaves us wondering, would a real-life bad guy give us the same answer? Reporter Aaron Scott helps us find out by introducing us to Jeff Jensen, who wrote a graphic novel about one of the most prolific serial killers in US history. Jeff’s father Tom Jensen spent 17 years as a lead detective searching for the man known as the Green River Killer. And when they finally caught him 2001, it was Tom’s job to get Garry Ridgway to divulge all the details of his crimes--including the question that had haunted Tom for decades: why?


Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case, Green River Killer: A True Detective Story


Jeff Jensen and James Shapiro


Aaron Scott

Comments [20]

Paul Joseph from Juneau

If I had noticed the comment by Jean above I would have said this already: the statement "there is no such thing as good or bad" is moral relativism at its worst. It's the sort of abstract thing that could only be said from the comfy confines of one's armchair, well removed from the concrete realities of life, where persons make decisions and take actions throughout the day based on judgments of good and bad, and I'm not even talking about the more extreme stuff.

Oct. 29 2015 04:40 PM
Paul J from Juneau AK from Juneau

I heard this episode on why bad guys are bad, and was reminded of the book by Ron Rosenbaum "Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil," which looks at various ways that different people have tried to make sense of Hitler, easily one of history's all-time worst "bad guys." Chapter 16 ("The Temptation to Blame God") addresses ideas about god's "role" (or lack thereof) in the holocaust in a pro and con manner.

The short answer to the question "why" is that explanations usually say more about the explainer than they do the subject they attempt to make understandable. In the end, no one can really say exactly why Hitler became the way he did. It is a great book, and I recommend it highly; for those with less time, just read this, Rosenbaum's afterword for the second edition:

Oct. 25 2015 02:24 AM
Cheryl from Portland Oregon

I was acutely aware of the murders of prostitutues in Seattle, always on a backpage with hardly a word of compassion, the silence from the community was deafening and this went on for years. I was working at a massage parlor downtown and living off Cherry Street, one night a car pulled up and I got in. It was him. Since Gary's arrest I have listened to all his recorded interviews and spoke to Ann Rule at length, she gave my story a couple of paragraphs and I read of one other woman who escaped his murderous rage and I wonder why he decided not to kill either one of us...all these years later...

Oct. 24 2015 06:31 PM
Eileen from Outside Boston

I don't get why so many professionals worked so hard exploring this man's motivation. It would seem likely that he has antisocial personality disorder, and thus a brain that leaves him without a conscience and without the ability to empathize. The world could never give him enough attention and admiration, and he needed thrills to feel satisfied. Surely he enjoyed the years of interviews, and the efforts of those trying to figure him out.

Oct. 24 2015 05:31 PM
Bilbo Baggins from Middle Earth

This was truly a thought-provoking podcast. Listening to a serial killer speak about his crimes gave me the chills, his words will most likely be stuck in my head the rest of the day, but it brought up this idea that the root of all evil is frowned upon yet we eagerly want to understand it just like Gary’s interrogators.
For all those who lie awake contemplating the meaning of life, here are the questions that arose in my head whilst listening to this:
It has stumped every one of our ancestors and is the question not even the most intelligent human being on the world today can answer, the question “Why?” has no end. When some of Shakespeare’s villains answered the “Why?” question with their motive, couldn’t we ask “Why?” again?
I believe the question is a gateway to even more questions, piling up like they’re limitless. Could the question “why?” just be our way of trying to understand human nature? If we delve into the depths of the human mind could we find a why? Could we find a why in the meaning of life? Could we find a why in what we are doing here and why in the world have particles combined so precisely and intricately to create me typing away on my computer and you reading the pixels on a screen?
Why do we ask why? Are we trying to figure this puzzle of life out? Is there even an answer?

Questions like these are scary to even contemplate (trust me, I’m scaring myself by even thinking like this!), but I personally think that there never has been and never will be an answer to the haunting question, “why?”

Apr. 02 2014 05:21 PM

I just finished reading Othello for a class, and was reminded of the Iago part of this podcast. While there are a number of obvious reasons for Iago's hatred of Othello (racism, Othello potentially sleeping with Emilia, Iago's anger about Othello picking Cassio over him, etc), none of them seems to really explain his evilness. Those are the "easy" reasons, but it almost seems as if in his laundry list of reason, there is one distinct reason that is missing. One could potentially play with the idea of a romantic involvement between Iago and Othello, but there isn't a huge amount of literary evidence for that.

The most frustrating part of it all may be that while Iago provides many reasons that could explain his behavior, none of them quite feels sufficient. And that's why his silence is so devastating. The reader doesn't buy the justifications which he has provided. Without a reason for his actions, the play is that much more twisted. He complicates the idea of the black devil, acting as a devil of the "wrong" race.

Apr. 20 2013 10:37 PM

I have a question,

would someone with Asberger's be predisposed to being selfish because they can't empathize? How much does empathy acount for not being selfish...i always wondered about that. Like can a person with asberger's (really bad case of it) easily tell themselves to help other people and look after them, or do they easily lose sight of that easily forget about that task?

So how much does empathy lead to a person doing kind things..and how much does not having empathy lead a person to doing bad things..or can a person with no empathy make themselves do good things as much as a person with emapthy?


Apr. 19 2013 12:20 AM
Lauren from New Zealand

One theory, about Othello, that might give us a clue on entire issue, is that it's possible that Iago was racist (Othello is Moorish). The kind of racism that de-humanises the subject of racism in the mind of the racist, and allows the subject to become a vessel for hatred and shadow aspects of the racist. And could also be similar to the mysogyny in the story of the serial killer. To believe that women are sub-human.

Apr. 08 2013 03:50 AM
Anna M.


I'm not sure if there's a better place for me to leave comments specifically for the makers of Radiolab, but I just wanted to correct something I believe is a mistake. You mention that in the story of Job, it's the Devil that goes about destroying Job's life. I don't think that's correct. It's God that does those things to Job (killing his animals, his 7 children, his wife, taking away his wealth). I read the story a while ago, but I'm quite sure it's God that does it. He makes a deal with the Devil in the beginning, when the Devil is like "Oh, if Job didn't have all of these nice things (cause he was superrich), then I bet he wouldn't believe in you so much" And then God is like "Yeah, well, I'll prove it . . ."

Feb. 05 2013 01:12 PM
Jesse Zylstra from Washington State

I've given this a lot of thought, and I can't say that I've ever thought about killing someone.
I don't really get angry either. I get disappointing with people very easily -- when I assign a task for someone to do and they don't do it or when someone goes about doing something they should not have, I just feel disapproval of them. If its more a personal level, I've become upset with people, but that's a major distinction from being angry. Upset mostly meaning that I just think a lot less of them. Is there something wrong with me?

Feb. 06 2012 10:59 PM
Harvey Price from fanny

LOL at me spaker

Jan. 26 2012 05:40 AM

On the topic of Titus Andronicus... am I mistaken in interpreting the lines of Aaron who states at the end
"O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers 2730
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul."

Doesn't sound very repentant to me...

Jan. 24 2012 08:54 AM
Brigadoon from Austin, TX

The last act of the podcast highlight many of the pillars of restorative justice. The impact of violent crime extends far beyond the victim and the offender. It sends ripples through families, friends and communities. Detective Jensen became a part of the community through his lengthy investigation into the case. The empathy and genuiness Detective Jensen demonstrates towards this man reestablishes a human connection that gives the offender the space necessary to divulge his secrets.

Although the details are gruesome, I wonder how the information given by Mr. Ridgway affected the community at large?

Jan. 22 2012 01:08 AM

When is someone going to write about the subtopic of catalytic villains? Yes, bullies are often the victim of bullying; some find unhealthy/illegal ways to continue their habits while other use healthy/legal ways to channel their fury. Movies including BATMAN RETURNS and X-MEN: FIRST CLASS tap into catalytic villains as part of origin stories but they tend to get left behind in the first act. The prey becomes the predator; it's a cliche that does not always apply. The powerless seeking power at all costs and the human desiring to become a demon if not a god; that is the path to becoming evil. It also ignores game theory: good guys have to worry about bad guys, while bad buys have to prepare fight-or-flight plans against everyone.

Jan. 21 2012 01:38 PM
Skulligan from Los Angeles

Wasn't Iago mad because Othello picked the younger Rodrigo over him as his lieutenant, when Iago had been his right hand man in many a battle before? That's a reason to have a grudge against both Othello and Rodrigo... Mr James Shapiro says we never understand Iago (which may be true), but then Abumrad goes on to say there's no reason given but some alluding to Othello possibly sleeping with Iago's wife...

Jan. 20 2012 01:36 PM

I had a similar line of questioning about why bad guys are "bad" in 2008.

I was living in Japan when the "Akihabara Killer" case happened - a man drove a rented truck two hours into Akihabara, the crowded tech district of Tokyo, jumped out of the car, and started stabbing people. Seven died - many were wounded before the police caught him.

It was all over the news. People were speculating as to why this had happened, and it all boiled down to some very violent sketches he had done in middle school and high school. The new talked about how he was in a fantasy world, and my host mother speculated that it was because he didn't have a girlfriend to keep him out of trouble.

I think the reason why people try to explain why someone is "bad" or "good" is because it scares me to think that I could be just like that man. We are all human beings; it's not outside the realm of possibilities, especially judging by the way people had answered in the first section that they had a specific plan to kill someone.

I can set someone apart from me by saying that I don't do violent sketches, or I'm not in my own world, but if I were to be honest with myself, the truth is because I don't want that killer to be human because I'm human, and I am afraid that if I admit that, I admit that I myself have the potential to kill.

Jan. 20 2012 10:32 AM

I don't know why Americans think I need to be reminded that they think that it's an essential part of the human condition to believe in their god. Their god hasn't always been the most popular and in the past it didn't even exist. You don't have a need to resolve the problem of evil if you believe in an indifferent or evil god, or you don't have these types of superstitions at all.

Fine if that's your audience, but what's not fine is that people keep telling the same lie, that a world without a god is meaningless, this is nonsensical to anyone with half a brain. We create meaning for ourselves, most people who don't believe in a god live in a universe with plenty of meaning. How can anyone say this universe without a purpose is chaotic? If the universe has a language it's mathematics, and it has laws, it's highly ordered, only someone who is extremely ignorant would say otherwise. This show is highly edited, why was that idiotic notion added at the end? I don't need to listen to ignorant idiotic bigots, and I won't.

Jan. 14 2012 06:47 AM

This dude had serious rage and impulse control issues. He's mentally ill. Just like every other serial killer. Oh and I think bad is anything that causes discomfort or interrupts normal function. Now whether bad things are justified is a stickier topic to me.

Jan. 11 2012 04:13 PM
Amy D. from Chicago

I bought the Green River Killer graphic novel the month it came out. Such an incredible read - and so haunting. It's crazy to hear the actual recordings from him after reading it.

Jan. 10 2012 04:29 PM

there is no such thing as good or bad. that is merely a construct to help us deal with society. what we call good or bad simply two sides to the same coin. when we side with the stuff that we like, we call that good, and the opposing stuff we don't like, we call that bad. it usually helps when we have a mass amount of people who are also on the same side as us, and thus eradicating the things we don't like becomes that much easier.

in the end it all depends on which side we are on. if you step back a bit, its all the same. we all think that killing is wrong, but if we attach a reason to it, suddenly its not killing and worse, it is not so wrong, or at the very least it is "acceptable". its defending, or protecting, or preserving etc.... but if we don't like or agree with the reason that is attached to killing, its murder, or other "bad" word we use to describe such events. this is why people have such a hard time dealing with someone who kills for absolutely no reason. especially when they are not crazy, and yet we somewhat default to the idea that such individuals must be crazy.

in the end, when we talk about good or bad, evil what ever, we are really talking about reasons and justifications we either agree or disagree with. the next time someone talks about good and evil, remove those words and you will see whatever event in a more objective manner.

Jan. 10 2012 03:25 PM

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