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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Bales’

The foremost question on the minds of millions of Americans, Afghans and others these days is this:

What prompted 38-year-old Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to leave his Army post in the middle of the night, walk a mile to an obscure village and slaughter 16 Afghans, including nine children?

Did he simply snap under the pressure of four tours of wartime duty? Did stress from domestic and financial troubles push him to violent sublimation? Did he lose his mind?

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales

The question is profound because there is little in his background — military and personal — that points to a logical conclusion. There’s no “ah-ha” pinpointing of a past experience or criminal history that satisfies one’s curiosity.

In an Op-Ed column published in The New York Times yesterday, David Brooks, a learned and reflective man, posed a general hypothesis that, in my opinion, comes close to yielding the answer.

The column, titled “When the Good Do Bad,” says that Bales’ actions should not be totally surprising because people who seem “mostly good” frequently commit monstrous deeds.

Brooks cites a study conducted by a University of Texas professor who asked his students if they had ever thought seriously about killing someone, and “if so, to write out their homicidal fantasies in an essay.”

Brooks says Professor David Buss was “astonished” to find that 91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women “had detailed, vivid homicidal fantasies.”

Brooks writes:

“These thoughts do not arise from playing violent video games, Buss argues. they occur because we are descended from creatures who killed to thrive and survive. We’re natural-born killers and the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so.”

That deep-seated instinct clashes, Brooks says, with the commonly held view that most people are innately good. But an earlier worldview, Brooks goes on to note, was that “people are a problem to themselves.”

“The inner world is a battlefield between light and dark, and life is a struggle against the destructive forces inside.”

Brooks notes that John Calvin, a 16th Century,  French theologian and pastor during the Protestant Reformation, believed that “babies come out depraved.”

Brooks concludes by saying:

“According to this older worldview, Robert Bales, like all of us, is a mixture of virtue and depravity. His job is to struggle daily to strengthen the good and resist the evil, policing small transgressions to prevent larger ones. If he didn’t do that, and if he was swept up in a whirlwind, then even a formerly good man is capable of monstrous acts that shock the soul and sear the brain.”

The phrase — “policing small transgressions to prevent larger ones” — really struck home with me.

Don’t we all struggle with that? Another way of putting is that we try to hide and shackle the demons within. Normally, when we screw up in a relatively small way — like offending a friend or saying something mean to a spouse or partner — we try, afterwards, to think it through and figure out how we could have avoided the offense, how we should have exercised patience to circumvent a regrettable course of action. And, normally, we say to ourselves, “I won’t let that happen again. Next time, I’m going to be think through my options and refrain from lashing out.”

The Bales case — and the question “Why?” — reminds me of a local case, perhaps the most shocking and notorious murder in the history of Olathe.

It was the early-morning hours of Feb. 28, 1982, killing of 25-year-old David Harmon, who was married to a woman whose father was superintendent of this area’s Church of the Nazarene.

Harmon, a loan officer at a bank, was bludgeoned while he slept in the duplex that he and his wife, Melinda Harmon, rented. He was beaten mercilessly and viciously, struck more than a dozen times, full force, by an attacker wielding a crowbar. It was so bad that one of David Harmon’s eyeballs popped out of its socket and landed on the floor several feet away.

Police completely botched the case, partly because Melinda’s father, William Lambert, intimidated detectives; threw a fit at police headquarters and refused to let them interview his daughter, even though she was an adult and police could have persisted.

Mangelsdorf (KS Dept. of Corrections photo, 2011)

The person wielding the crowbar was a 21-year-old man named Mark Mangelsdorf, who was either conducting an affair with Melinda or wanted to. Melinda aided and abetted the murder, and, in fact, was in the room when the beating started.

Because the investigation was “a board certified disaster,” as Marek Fuchs wrote in his 2009 book about the case, “A Cold-Blooded Business,” Harmon and Mangelsdorf got away with murder for 23 years.

After the murder, Harmon and Mangelsdorf went their separate ways, with Harmon marrying an Ohio dentist, Mark Raisch, and having children with him.

As for Mangelsdorf — here’s where the analogy to Robert Bales comes into play — he became a big executive, first with Pepsi and later with a couple of other companies and ended up in a $1.3 million, three-story house in an area abutting Long Island Sound. He was married to another executive, and they were respected members of the community.

Melinda Raisch (KS Dept. of Corrections photo, 2010)

In 2005, however, the case was reopened, and both  Raisch and Mangelsdorf ended up coming back to Kansas and pleading guilty to second-degree murder. (An interview that Harmon gave to two resourceful Olathe detectives  proved to be the turning point.)

Each was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison. Both remain in custody — she in Topeka, he in Lansing — but both apparently are now eligible for parole.

Where Bales was able to contain his demons until he was 38, Mangelsdorf lost control of his at age 21 but then managed to corral them and go on to live an exemplary life.

In his book, Fuchs uses a different metaphor for the Mangelsdorf case — a lion getting out of its cage.

“Mark managed to put the lion back,” Fuchs wrote. “And keep him locked up. This was not a crime committed at a distance, but close-up, one that sent a man’s eyeball flying across the room. And while it was partially a crime of passion, he had planned it for months, lying in wait with a crowbar in his possession for a full week. But the lion was, forever afterward, caged and gentle.”

Unfortunately for the world, and particularly for the victims and for the United States’ world image, the lion in Sgt. Bales got out, too.

Unlike Mangelsdorf, though, Bales probably won’t be getting a chance to re-cage the lion and redirect his life in conventional society.

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