A common theme in literature is to have a villain that’s an “evil genius,” or something like it, such as “mad scientist” or “evil wizard.” Unfortunately for the stories, such bad guys aren’t that common in real life. A lot of them are just plain dumb. I got an example of that in this morning’s news. On the radio I heard about a guy robbing a bank; the teller told him that he could withdraw no more than $200 per day, there would be a $5 fee for the transaction, and he would have to fill out a withdrawal slip. The would-be robber complied with these rules, which needless to say gave the teller enough time to summon the cops.
In Florida I used to listen to the “John Boy & Billy Big Show,” and that radio program would run stories like these every two weeks, in a segment called “Dumb Crook News.” I always found it encouraging to listen, because it told me that while the crime rates may be increasing, the quality of the crimes is getting worse. If the criminals are killed or maimed by their escapades, they might even get nominated for the Darwin Awards!
When it comes to history and current events, a few characters fit the “evil genius” description, like Prince Metternich of early 19th-century Austria, but most of the time the phrase “the Banality of Evil,” coined to describe the behavior of Adolf Eichmann, seems more appropriate. Last month I read an obituary of Kurt Waldheim, and it described him that way; whether he was an SS officer or UN Secretary-General, he didn’t seem to care much about whether his actions were right or wrong, so long as all rules/protocols were followed. In the past century, both the Nazis and the communists were led by one or more scheming masterminds, while most of their followers were taught not to think for themselves. It’s a similar story with our current enemies. Among the Islamofascists, Osama bin laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri seem to fit the “evil genius” description, but certainly not anyone who would go on a suicide mission. Ever notice how the leaders of terrorist groups like Hamas and Al Qaeda don’t show much interest in going to the Paradise they promise to their followers? Likewise, the leaders of the countries that support them don’t seem to be particularly brilliant folks. Certainly not Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, or the Palestinians in general, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is simply a fanatic.
For a hilarious Flash animation about Osama as an “evil genius” in his hideout, click on the next link: osama_cave.swf
This doesn’t necessarily mean we’re off the hook. A stupid opponent can make up for his failings by acting vicious, and we’re seeing plenty of that in this conflict. Perhaps morale is slipping on our side because there isn’t an obvious “evil genius” character on the other side. One that’s alive, anyway; I have long felt that Osama hasn’t been seen lately because he died around the end of 2001. Does anyone among the terrorists remind you a of a fictional villain like Sauron, Dr. Moriarty, Lex Luthor, Ming of Mongo or Darth Vader? We can win if we stop acting like this war is a video game or TV show, which can be switched off when we get bored (see my essay “Couch Potato Warriors“).
Finally, even the real evil geniuses make dumb mistakes, if the stories about them can be trusted. Check out Peter’s Evil Overlord List to see all the things Peter would do to avoid the fate of other bad guys. Can villains learn from those who fell before them?