Who’s More Evil: Terrorists or Bernie Madoff?

Question: Are terrorists evil?

Michael Stone: Well, that gets into a complicated subject having to do with evil in wartime or in times of group conflict, which is different from what we’ve been focusing on, which is evil in peacetime.  So that certainly the victims of terrorism experienced the terrorist as evil.  I have no trouble, for example, calling Khalid Sheikh Mohammad evil, the one who cut the throat of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journalist after making him say, “I’m a Jew,” in Pakistan.  That’s a terroristic act which is like many acts of terrorism meant to warn the public.  There are many motives for terrorism, but one of the main ones is public warning.  Like, anyone who is thinking of doing whatever, this is what’s gong to happen to you, so that it acts as a deterrent.  This, of course, is extremely far, outrageously beyond what would be necessary as a public warning and that’s why we experience it as evil because it has that element of excess, which is one of the essences of evil.  It’s over-the-top.  

The guy that killed the... Hasan, that killed the 12 soldiers down in Fort Hood.  Evil.  Of course.  An act of Islamic terrorism.  Those kinds of things are clearly experienced as evil by the victims and by the people who side with the victims, such as the American public.  But the thing is, the people that commit the terrorism they, as you know, like in 9/11, consider the Americans as the Great Satan and we’re the infidel because we don’t subscribe to Islam, et cetera.  So they experience us as evil at the same time as we experience them as evil.  And we don’t have a God that descends from the sky and says, “Well, I’ve looked over your situation and I’ve looked over the other guy’s situation and I really think evil is on the side of the ones who blew up the World Trade tower."  So, it’s like history decides.  But I think it’s pretty obvious, that when you subject a human being to intense suffering, even for these so-called political purposes, that you’ve committed evil.  What the heck?

Question:  Where would corporate criminals fall on your scale?

Michael Stone: Well, they’re not on my scale because my scale is really earmarked for rape and serious crimes of violence and murder.  But I do notice that in the case of Bernie Madoff, because he lost $60 billion of other people’s money—which is all mind-boggling, it’s hard to get your brain around that.  When he was sentenced by the judge and sentenced to 150 years in prison, just as a token gesture, meaning, "We don’t want to let you out, Bernie."  The judge said, “Mr. Madoff, you are an extraordinarily evil man.”  

Now interestingly, a number of the people who fed millionaires' monies to Madoff, especially the guy in France, an aristocratic guy who got various important people to give a lot of money, it was a feeder fund for Madoff.  He didn’t... he believed that Madoff was honest.  When he discovered that he had lost, that Madoff had lost all of his client’s money—and by the way also the aristocrat’s money—he committed suicide.  And there were a number of suicides occuring in the immediate aftermath of the Madoff scandal.  So, in a way, in directly he had caused the death of a number of people besides, of course, subjecting untold number so people to the loss of their money and to misery.

Recorded on July 27, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

Evil is so subjective that what we perceive as evil, Islamic terrorists do not, says Stone. But we can all agree that Bernie Madoff is evil.

Physicists find new state of matter that can supercharge technology

Scientists make an important discovery for the future of computing.

Surprising Science
  • Researchers find a new state of matter called "topological superconductivity".
  • The state can lead to important advancements in quantum computing.
  • Utilizing special particles that emerge during this state can lead to error-free data storage and blazing calculation speed.
Keep reading Show less

Physicist advances a radical theory of gravity

Erik Verlinde has been compared to Einstein for completely rethinking the nature of gravity.

Photo by Willeke Duijvekam
Surprising Science
  • The Dutch physicist Erik Verlinde's hypothesis describes gravity as an "emergent" force not fundamental.
  • The scientist thinks his ideas describe the universe better than existing models, without resorting to "dark matter".
  • While some question his previous papers, Verlinde is reworking his ideas as a full-fledged theory.
Keep reading Show less

How to heal trauma with meaning: A case study in emotional evolution

As tempting as it may be to run away from emotionally-difficult situations, it's important we confront them head-on.

  • Impossible-sounding things are possible in hospitals — however, there are times when we hit dead ends. In these moments, it's important to not run away, but to confront what's happening head-on.
  • For a lot of us, one of the ways to give meaning to terrible moments is to see what you can learn from them.
  • Sometimes certain information can "flood" us in ways that aren't helpful, and it's important to figure out what types of data you are able to take in — process — at certain times.
Keep reading Show less