Banal Evil

Murder often makes a persons blood boil and ask the question, “How can someone do that to someone else? ” Most of time when a gruesome act of violence happens people wonder, “What kind of human being does it take to do something like that? ” Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood, is about such an act of violence; a murder that, when the reader walks away, only registers a banal. The killing of the Clutter family, which happened in 1959 in the town of Holcomb, Kansas, blew most people away with its senselessness and horror.
Capote, however, writes the story with personal background on the killers, making them human and giving the reader, something most people do not get to hear or even care to know, a reason to the mindless murders. Evil is easily banalized when there is a story to go along with it. At the beginning of In Cold Blood the Clutters murderers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, are “persons unknown” elevating them to a state of inhuman, mythical form. The town of Holcomb, a small quite place where nothing happens, is suddenly shaken and view Smith and Hickock as motiveless evil that has come down to destroy the peaceful life the community has. This hitherto peaceful congregation of neighbors and old friends had suddenly to endure the unique experience of distrusting each other; understandably, they believe that the murderer was among themselves” (88). This quote shows the havoc that is wreaked on the security of town, fragmenting the community into suspicion. They, as the town, fall from grace, a loss of their former innocence, as they are forced to confront the reality of the killers and the world they represent. However, as the book moves on so does the readers point of view, from one of the townspeople to that of the killers.
Capote replaces the simplistic view to a more sensitive interpretation exploring the physiological, material, and environmental circumstances that are the catalyst for Smith and Hickock to commit murder. Smith, the reader is told, is the child of an extremely abusive household in which is subjected to alcoholism, the suicidal deaths of his two siblings and mother, abandonment, no formal education, etc. Describing his father Smith says, “But no education, because he didn’t want me to learn anything, only how to tote and carry for him.

Dumb. Ignorant. That’s the way he wanted me to be. So that I could never escape him” (185). Smith clearly hates his father and blames him for the situation he is in now; not having an education is something that Smith seems very occupied with and resents in people around him. Hickock on the other had seems to come from a poor, but good family. Being the star athlete in high school, with good grades to boot, Hickock seems to have had a normal life. However, he is in the constant mindset of envy of money/power. Envy was constantly with him [Hickock]; the Enemy was anyone who was someone he wanted to be or who had anything he wanted to have” (200). The Clutters, in contrast, were “the perfect family”. Extremely wealthy, well to do, and educated they were a symbol of everything the murderers wanted. With the envies in toe, Smiths being education and Hickock’s being money/power, the Clutters were the perfect family for the two murders to let their rage out on. Knowing Hickock’s and Smiths backgrounds, the reader now has something to empathize with and to mold into some type of understanding.
The killers are being transformed from heartless, cold-blooded murders to frightful and pitiful individuals. The crime itself is boiled down to pure emotional responses. Stephen J. Whitfield compares the emotions of the Clutter murders to that of Adolf Eichmann, the man who “directed the transportation of the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe to their death (496)”, in the book The History Teacher. “Between such multiple murders and Eichmann, some parallel can perhaps be traced in terms of the absence of any human connection, any remorse, any emotional weight to be attached to their crimes.
They were frighteningly estranged form the rest of the human race” (473). Whitfield brings up any interesting point, which Smith brings up latter in the book. The fact that Smith and Hickock are so separated from the human race is something that not only scares the reader, but also puts the murders in a different light. Though remorse is thought of as the road to forgiveness, Smith makes a point that most do not think of. “Just remember: I only knew the Clutters maybe an hour.
If I’d really known them, I guess I’d feel different…But the way it was, it was like picking off targets in a shooting gallery” (291). Capote does not mean to excuse Smith and Hickock from their action, but he does show how ordinary feelings of frustration and despair can erupted into vicious acts of murder. Smith explains it by saying, “And it wasn’t because of anything the Clutters did. They never hurt me. Like other people. Like people have all my life. Maybe it’s just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it” (290).
In fact, during the murders, Smith even talks about his frustration and self-loathing that finally lead him to kill Mr. Clutter. “I knelt down beside Mr. Clutter, and the pain of kneeling-I thought of that goddam dollar. Silver dollar. The shame. Disgust. And they’d told me never to come back Kansas. But I didn’t realize what I’d done till I heard the sound” (245-246). The murder comes as an automatic response to the memory of other frustrations and insults Smith has endured, of which the Clutter house is a symbol of.
Another idea that Capote makes the reader take into fact is that Hickock and Smith were not inspired to murder due to literal hatred of the Clutters, but a misdirected frustration and resentment that finds a symbolic object in the Clutters and the values that they represent. “I [Smith] didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat” (244). The family is unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of this furry, but they are by no means the source.
The fact that Capote also brings in the psychologist goes to further legitimize that the murders had no control over their actions. “When Smith attacked Mr. Clutter her was under a mental eclipse, deep inside a schizophrenic darkness” (302). Smith was acting out of his medical incapacity to manage his emotional response. However, though Capote throws all of these ideas and images at us he tries to humanize the murders and make their crimes seem ordinary because he feels that this situation could have happened to him. If one reads Capotes history, his life was not that much different from Smith.
Capote touches on a human question of what people are capable of put in the right situation and the right environment. Saying that his event could happen to anyone, Capote places the readers brain on high alert and makes him or her consider his or her own situation. The evil of this crime, and of the criminals themselves, becomes banal due to Capote’s willingness to make it that way. He humanizes them in a way that no one else would. When the reader sees Hickock and Smith, they also see their past and motivations. The reader sees more then what they bargain for and, sometimes, even see themselves.


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