Lately I’ve been experiencing an unsettling disconnect in the way I look at my fellow human beings.
I have always been one of those types of people who strike up conversations in line at Starbucks or pretty much anywhere, for that matter. It’s a trait I must have inherited from my father. He kept a running commentary going about everything from the weather to the general state of the world, with nearly everyone he met: grocery store cashiers, waitresses, bus drivers, and sales clerks.
In my own case, it’s more my writer’s natural curiosity. I simply enjoy learning about people through my interactions with them. (Plus, as a writer, I do spend a lot of time alone.)
But recently I’ve been looking at people differently. I have found myself looking around and wondering who among us, who among the general population wandering the grocery store aisles and the coffee shops and the mall corridors is a Bad Person.
I realize that calling someone a Bad Person is probably not the most precise terminology for a person who does really bad things, such as killing other human beings, or molesting them, or kidnapping them, or terrorizing them. Those kinds of bad things. Which seem unimaginable, but happen to be committed daily by some of our fellow human beings.
The disconnect happens when I think about these people who do these bad things, really terrible things, walking around just like the rest of us. Ordering their coffee, chatting up the cashier, making small talk about the weather with a woman in line.
And I’ve started looking at people in a new way that I really don’t like. Because Bad People do walk around among us daily, and we can’t tell by looking at them who they might be. They often don’t give us any clues as to who they are or why they commit acts that most of society finds despicable.
In The 9/11 Commission Report you can read about how the planners and hijackers lived among us for months. Lived in our communities, ate at restaurants, and lived in apartments. They had girlfriends – one even used the internet to search for a wife. They worked out at gyms. They had families they contacted regularly. Speaking of two of the hijackers it was noted, “The two spent their last night pursuing ordinary activities: making ATM withdrawals, eating pizza, and shopping at a convenience store.”
On Oct. 6, 2006 a husband and father, Charles Carl Roberts IV, walked his two children to the school bus at 8:45 a.m., and then at 10 a.m. entered the West Nickel Mines Amish School and killed five girls, injuring more, before committing suicide. When people close to Roberts were interviewed, they could cite nothing out of the ordinary that would indicate he would ever commit an act like this.
When a former student at Northern Illinois University, Steven Kazmiercak, walked onto campus on Feb. 14, 2008, he probably passed by several students on his way to opening fire on students in a campus lecture hall, killing five and then killing himself. There were likely many students who passed him on their way to class, nodding at him in a friendly manner as students often do. People who had known him had never guessed he would commit such an act of violence.
Again, that is where the disconnect comes in. The guy you smile at and thank for holding the door open for you might be on the lookout for his next rape victim. The son of a family in a nearby neighborhood murders his family, seemingly out of the blue – as recently happened in Upper Merion. A mother drowns her three children, and in the Christmas card photo from three months before, they are all smiling.
You may have looked at the photos of these people who were arrested for these terrible crimes, and thought to yourself, “Why, he looks like he could have been anyone.” And he is anyone. He is the stranger who walks among us.
Kathy Stevenson’s work has appeared in many major newspapers and magazines. Her historical novel The Lake Poet was published in 2001 and she has published two essay collections. In 2010, her short story collection Death, Divorce, and Other Tales of Women’s Liberation was published as an e-book on Amazon’s Kindle. She received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Bennington College in Vermont.