The contrived veneer of human civilization is always thin. Always, it remains ready to crack. Inevitably, when it finally begins to fracture, as in the
case of the proper British schoolboys marooned on the island in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, a darkly ubiquitous human nature rises to
expose deeply primal layers of barbarism. Always, reminds Thomas Mann, this nature will "dare to be barbaric, twice barbaric indeed."
After attending the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, political philosopher Hannah Arendt ventured the sobering hypothesis that evil can be ordinary, or
"banal," that it can be generated by the literal (and seemingly benign) absence of thought. This novel interpretation of evil was widely challenged and
disputed following the trial, but it was, in fact, already rooted in certain classical views of individual human dualism, particularly the central themes
of Goethe's Faust. Hannah Arendt's resurgent idea of evil as mundane was also reinforced by still-earlier studies of nefarious human behavior in
the crowd, or the herd, or the mass, especially the auspiciously intersecting works of Soren Kierkegaard, Max Stirner, Arthur
Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gustave LeBon, Carl Jung, Elias Canetti, and, of course, Sigmund Freud.
In all of these thematically-related writings, a common focus is placed on the potentially corrosive impact of group membership and identity upon
individual behavior. In this genre, Freud's own best contribution is his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921).
Robert Lifton knew all this. Nonetheless, he was still seeking something more, another isolatable mechanism by which the ordinary or normal evildoer could
render himself (or herself) abnormal. Ultimately, he found this vital mechanism in an intra-psychic process that he proceeded to call "doubling."
Very different from the traditional psychoanalytic concept of "splitting," or what Freud himself had preferred to call "dissociation," doubling,
says Lifton, is the means whereby an "opposing self" begins to replace portions of the "original self," in effect, usurping and overwhelming that original
self from within. When this happens, we learn further, the opposing self is able to embrace evil doing without restraint, and even while the
original self remains determinedly "good." Doubling, therefore, permits evil doers to avoid guilt, and thereby to live simultaneously at two
utterly discrete and fully adversarial levels.
As a "maneuver," however unwitting, doubling had allowed the Nazi doctors to be murderers and decent family men at the same time. In similar
fashion, doubling is likely the way the two Boston Marathon bombers were able to reconcile the absolute ordinariness of their day-to-day lives and
ambitions, with an otherwise unfathomable cruelty. Earlier, Hannah Arendt had explained evildoing with thoughtlessness or "banality." In the case of the
two brothers in Boston, and also of certain other identifiable perpetrators of anti-American terrorism, a corollary explanation would seem to lie in doubling.