The Face of Evil?

Since I’ve twice mentioned the arsonist who has been terrorizing several Seattle neighborhoods and who burned down my favorite coffee shop, I thought I’d let you know that law enforcement caught the guy.  The experts who built a profile of the firebug predicted it would be a male in his late teens.  They were wrong.

When I first saw this picture, I thought he looked familiar.  And if you live in a metropolitan area he probably looks familiar to you, too.  Cities are full of crazy homeless dudes, and that’s pretty much what they look like.  Kenneth Swalwell, age 46, has a long criminal history, including two prior convictions for arson.  You would think that going to prison twice for setting fires would make him rethink the wisdom of that behavior, but clearly, thinking is not Swalwell’s thing.  And I don’t know if he’s been diagnosed with a mental illness, but “46-year-old homeless dude starting fires” screams “crazy.” 

After reading more news reports and blogs, I learned that Swalwell frequented the Green Bean, the coffee shop he has confessed to torching.  And then I realized he looked familiar not because he’s Generic Street Dude but because I’d seen him there.  In fact, I think I saw him the day before he set that fire, but my brain may have made that detail up to add drama. 

One thing I know for sure, he was not mistreated there.  He was welcomed and allowed to sit in the dry, warm shop as long as he liked.  He rewarded that kindness by breaking in, stealing a safe from the back office, and burning the place to the ground, along with the surrounding restaurants. 

Now he will go back to prison, hopefully for long enough that the community will be permanently safe from his violence.  (Another fire he has admitted to starting left a man with burns over 70% of his body.)  Maybe he prefers prison, where it is always warm and dry and he always gets fed.  I don’t know.

Tell me, friends: is he crazy or evil?  And what exactly is the difference?

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17 thoughts on “The Face of Evil?

  1. The difference is whether he is Muslim or not.  I’m joking, of course, he is crazy evil.  I wonder if he has ever been treated for mental illness?  What is the rest of his history?  That will tell the courts a lot, I suppose…   

  2. If he was evil, he would be wearing a nice suit, sitting in the coffee shop chatting up strangers about everything from current events to bacteria (not that those two are mutually exclusive) and, bit by bit, eroding the quality of life for every being he meets. He would create confusion and chaos, but he would do it in such a way that he always appears innocent of any wrongdoing. He’d probably be considered a “really nice guy” by just about everyone, but no one would really know that much about him. Crazy just goes out and does stuff without regard to consequences. That behavior may be confusing also, at least to us “normals”, and create chaos, but Crazy doesn’t try to appear innocent and usually doesn’t manipulate the way evil does. Crazy isn’t concerned with upsetting the balance of anything. Evil is VERY concerned with that. There are lots of crazy people out there; not so many truly evil ones.

  3. Of course he’s crazy.  He probably hears voices telling him to do evil things.  It doesn’t really matter if the arson is his idea or that of the voice’s.   He needs to be locked up for the rest of his life.

  4. This is a question I ask myself about twice-weekly.  The other thing I frequently ask myself is, “is this person evil, or just really really really really stupid?”  That doesn’t apply in this case, of course.  He doesn’t seem stupid, if only because he actually took the safe.

  5. It would be easy to lable him as evil but I’d opt for crazy and a criminal to boot.   Lots of street people are like that.   Being crazy doesn’t let him off the hook for what he’s done.   Jail him for a loooooooooooong time so he’won’t be able to do this again.   I doubt there’s any kind of mental help that would do him any good…or jail time either for that matter.

  6. There is definitely a huge difference between crazy and evil.  Contrary to public perception, most schizophrenics are harmless.  Not that you can’t be crazy AND evil, and this guy is probably a little of both.  That’s awful about the guy who got burned over 70% of his body.  Surely that is enough to keep this guy out of society forever.

  7. From my experience crazy does a lot of harm to the person and sometimes causes pain to freinds and family, As far as I am concerned those who purposefully do harm to others to assuage the crazy inside is a lot of evil, and deserves all the punishment society can dish out.  Not that they don’t deserve treatment too, but if you do things designed to cause pain to others indiscrimnately, or puposefully, well you get what you get.

  8. There is just a little pyro in my soul. Enough that I still miss the ritual fall burning of the leaves. Enough that I belong to a whole random collection of friends who can all be seduced into sitting around a campfire. There is just something so…primal…about fire. I think it might be possible to experience that inner, very fundamental fascination with flames and heat and the drama of it all without connecting in any real way with the destruction of property, business loss or even the proxemity of other people. Perhaps his dissociation from the consequences is a clue to his being homeless, friendless, etc.It’s always possible that he’s just an evil bastard, and even if he’s just a horribly confused mentally ill guy, I don’t want him living anywhere near my favorite coffee shop–but somehow in my mind evil is connected with needing/requiring first hand knowledge of the effects of your behavior on someone else which I’m not sure a fire would give.That said: people who write computer viruses are evil, and I’ve spent years wondering what would be so gratifying to a total stranger to screw up my computer.And to be honest, I also considered thieves to be just collectors of physical things until someone broke into my truck, and then suddenly it had nothing to do with what s/he took: it was all about my personal space being violated.Perhaps our whole concept of evil is irrevocably linked to that feeling that something has been taken from us, or we have lost control, or our faith in the regular everyday-ness of life has been shaken.I am sorry for your loss.

  9. When I saw the photo of Swalwell, I thought, there’s the guy that I saw at ‘our’ QFC on RB road a couple of days before.  I noticed him because he didn’t seem to be shopping, but just walking around looking at things other than the food.  He pulled my focus so severely that I took a really good look.  Then, because he didn’t really seem to be doing anything but being homeless in a grocery store, I let it go.  I wondered what he did.  Then, I read the story.  Chills, chills, and more.

  10. I’ll vote for evil, because he had enough presence of mind to take the safe.  He wasn’t just acting out of some irresistable compulsion… he went for the cash first.  That makes me think the fire was either for fun, spite, or to destroy evidence.

  11. I’d go for both, and the difference?  Depends on the day.  I mean, it’s not like crazy folks can’t be these evil, conniving, cunning, sometimes/always one step ahead of you people who actually may know they’re insane.  Folks can commit crimes and just not give one iota of a damn, and I’m trying to think of a time when I actually couldn’t believe people could act like that, and you know, sadly, I don’t think I can.  As for getting the safe, yep, that’s a checkmark in the evil/criminal category.  But who knows if he’s got psychological problems (that can stick.)  Anyone that sets fires and injures people is already a bit off, no matter what.

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