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The darkness that lies within us all

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By all outward appearances, Russell Williams looked and played the part of a shining hero who could do no wrong; a rising star soaring high on the national stage before going down in flames as perhaps the most ruthless sociopath in Canadian history.

In his community, he was the 'good neighbour' -- the guy who'd help an old lady cross the street. Even Williams' best friend, Jeff Farquhar, couldn't reconcile the man he knew for almost 30 years and the monster that emerged in the courtroom.

Although some of Williams' associates said he was a bit curt and reserved, this was in hindsight. If his nefarious crimes hadn't been revealed publicly, they might have described him as this ultra cool Clint Eastwood-type who goes after the bad guys. After all, he was awarded the highest honour as 8 Wing/CFB Trenton's single Olympic torchbearer. And yet, this was the same Olympian hero who, while talking about improving community relations, was also committing heinous acts in the same community.

I've spent over a decade in my work as an author reflecting on this dichotomy between the psychology of the hero and the psychology of the villain and have come to the understanding that no matter how good we may think we are, there's a villain in all of us. Whether we choose to admit it or not, there's a part of Williams in us all, too.

But what's the X factor that causes one to act out the monster within while another goes on to lead a fulfilling life? Psychologists are still grappling with this question. No one knows for sure what ingredients of genetic programming, environment and window of opportunity makes the X factor dominant.

Could the Canadian Forces have prevented the rise through the ranks of such a monster? The quandary lies in what's required of soldiers in times of war: the ability to obey orders dispassionately. A soldier cannot crumple up into a ball of tears in the aftermath of a bloodbath when another attack is planned. A pilot cannot have a nervous breakdown thinking about the loss of life in the middle of a bombing raid.

So while psychopaths need to be screened out, the system requires people with psychopathic tendencies because the recruit has to be desensitized to kill the enemy. Back in civilian life, if they misbehave they're given sensitivity training as punishment.

Can such conflict of interest ever be reconciled? Probably not. For one thing, the hero and villain will always be a part of our psyche. Also, our societal structure is highly interdependent on institutions with degrees of psychopathology built in to the core. To take one example outside the Forces, the Canadian documentary film, The Corporation, effectively built a case demonstrating how closely the profile of a corporation matches up with a clinically diagnosed psychopath.

We're breeding a generation of monsters. Especially since the distinction between heroes and villains is quickly eroding in popular culture. Unfortunately, we'll be seeing more Williams-type incidents occurring.

While we may not be able to stop this monstrous force entirely, we can certainly minimize it. As a society, we need to look inward through a process of introspection and self-analysis; we need to develop more self-awareness by reflecting on our inner life -- seeking to understand the monster within while also honouring the hero within.

If we ignore this; if we point our fingers at the monster that rears its head in the criminal justice system, then sweep the problem under the rug and forget about it, the force festers like a cancer until it's too late.

Let me make one thing clear: Williams understood right from wrong, but chose the path of the villain. He's the opposite of a hero; he's a coward and he got what he deserved. The real heroes in this tragedy are the victims and their families who fought bravely.

Williams is history. But we can learn from history. As Canada heals from this deep wound, we must be courageous and not be afraid to journey into the heart of darkness to uncover our inner demons and to also search for the heroic inside and consciously choose the hero's path.

Sharif Khan is a writer and author of Psychology of the Hero Soul.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 8, 2010 A10

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