A shocking story appeared on the front page of the New York Times yesterday regarding a small-town Kentucky woman, beloved by neighbors, with a dark past. Issabell Basic, previously known as Azra Basic, was charged in 1993 for war crimes by the Bosnian government, but she has only recently been located in rural Kentucky leading to her arrest this week:

Nearly two decades after fleeing her native Croatia, the squat, hardworking woman known as Issabell Basic lived a quiet life in this small town, firing up her Jeep Cherokee each day for the 25-minute commute to her job making Hot Pockets.

She doted on the dog she had bottle-fed as a puppy, was handy at sinking a fence post, and though neighbors never took to her stuffed grape leaves and cabbage, friends loved the cakes she baked each time a birthday rolled around.

Emphysema kept her close to the series of homes she shared with Steve Loman and his wife, Lucy, whom she called “Sis.” The Lomans, in turn, describe Ms. Basic, 51, as a “big-hearted” person — the kind who would not buy something for herself without first picking up a gift for a friend, but who was also so scarred by the Bosnian conflict that she could not watch war movies and had severed all ties with her native land.

But perhaps there was another reason for the break: the woman known here as Issabell is identified in court papers as Azra Basic, and prosecutors in Bosnia allege that in 1992 she was part of a vicious brigade of Croatian Army soldiers that tortured and killed ethnic Serbs at three detention camps in the early years of the Bosnian war.

Victims and witnesses from the camps, quoted in court documents, say that while wearing a Croatian uniform, twin knives strapped to her belt and a boot, Ms. Basic carved crosses into prisoners’ foreheads. They accuse her of slitting one man’s throat and forcing others to drink from the dead man’s wound.

One witness says Ms. Basic made him drink gasoline, then set fire to his hands and face. Others say she forced them to crawl — half-naked, a knotted rope in their mouths and a Croatian soldier on their back — across a floor littered with glass.

The same woman who bottle-fed her puppy allegedly slit a man’s throat. How are we to make sense of this? In 1963, philosopher Hannah Arendt used the phrase “the banality of evil” to refer to cases like this one where “[T]he deeds were monstrous, but the doer–at least the very effective one now on trial, was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous” (The Life of the Mind, 4). In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt writes,

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgments, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied–as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsel–that this new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani, commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong. (253).

Indeed, Basic’s neighbors did not respond to her arrest with the sort of horror we might expect. Their comments show an implicit understanding of the banality of evil and a recognition that they are not so unlike her:

“Anything she done, it was army connected,” said Ms. Loman, who said she believed that her friend was a fundamentally good person whom the horrors of war had forced to make impossible moral choices. The war toughened Ms. Basic, Ms. Loman said, but she was loyal and felt deeply for her friends, naming Ms. Loman in her will and buying carpet for a bedroom addition that would have allowed Ms. Basic her own room.

“I have no doubt if someone wanted to shoot me, she’d take the bullet,” Ms. Loman said.

The Lomans are not alone in this hill-country town of 3,000 when they say that what international courts deem war crimes are in fact rough justice.

“I don’t think she’s guilty of anything but being a human being,” said Eli Vires, a neighbor. “They should just let her out of jail and be done with it.”

. . .

If convicted, Ms. Basic would most likely spend the rest of her life in prison. But if she is found not guilty, Ms. Loman said she would welcome her home.

“She’s already been through hell once,” Ms. Loman said as she sifted through Issabell’s clothes and pictures. “Why put her through it again?”

Stanley Hauerwas, in reflecting on the banality of evil in the life of Albrecht Speer, Hitler’s head architect, argued that we humans have a tendency to self-deception which leads us to assume that we are better than we are. For Hauerwas, living authentically requires habits of truth-telling which make us conscious of what we are and what we are capable of. Such habits of truth-telling must rise above conventional explanations of our actions, especially those that are associated with our professions.

On the one hand, Basic’s neighbors seem surprisingly undeceived. They recognize their own capacity for evil in reflecting on Basic’s own atrocities. But on the other hand, Basic’s neighbors reflect the same self-deception Hauerwas has in mind. They associate Basic’s violence with her role in the military and the standards of her profession as a soldier. They tell themselves a story that allows them to not face the truth of the situation.

I think that Basic’s neighbors not only deceive themselves by appealing to Basic’s profession as a justifying narrative for her action, but they also deceive themselves by appealing to a narrative about human nature, a narrative which says that human beings are naturally violent, defensive, and even demonic when given the opportunity. “I don’t think she is guilty of anything but being a human being,” her neighbor said of Basic. Sociobiology provides much of the foundation for this narrative, at least in its contemporary form, by drawing on evolution for an etiology and explanation of human violence. One example of such a move is Richard Wrangham’s demonic male hypothesis which suggests that both human and chimpanzee males inherited a propensity for violent behavior from a common ancestor. Followers of Wrangham’s thesis love to point out that only two primates kill their own kind: chimps and us.

A counterthesis to this sociobiological narrative comes from scientists like Frans de Waal who argues that human beings have evolved to be empathetic, that we are “group animals: highly cooperative, sensitive to injustice, sometimes warmongering, mostly peace loving” (The Age of Empathy, 5). Empathy is not a given, as de Waal reluctantly admits, but rather depends on identification, on seeing oneself in another:

We’re ready to share the feelings of someone we identify with, which is why we do so easily with those who belong to our inner circle: For them, the portal is always ajar. Outside this circle, things are optional. It depends on whether we can afford being affected, or whether we want to be. If we notice a beggar in the street, we can choose to look at him, which may arouse our pity, or we can look away, even walk to the other side of the street, to avoid facing him. We have all sorts of ways to open or close the portal (The Age of Empathy, 214).

Even sociobiological “optimists” like De Waal can’t get away from the fact that there is something in our nature which makes us susceptible to atrocities like the ones basic has been accused of. Issabell Basic’s story, and the communal response to it, reinforces the complexity of human nature and the need for an ethic that goes beyond mere prescriptions which one can choose to follow or not to an ethic which provides a moral vision in addition to rules and principles. A morality that stops at “Thou shalt not kill” cannot attend to the very complex ways in which people may not be fully “free” to obey or not to obey. And empathy, which is a prerequisite to fulfilling this commandment in confusing circumstances like war and genocide, is not something that one can be commanded to have.

We are, by nature, mixed bags, capable of great good and great evil. An ethic of character recognizes that the freedom to act and to choose good or evil is a skill which must be developed. We need habits or dispositions which allow us not only to choose the good, but provide us the ability to even see the good in the first place. The formation of character is, accordingly, a sort of moral vision with which we view the world. It is a moral vision which is contextual and dependent on its community for its basic moral grammar, but one which is also not passively determined by its community. Character is what allows us to determine who we will become and what we will do rather than have this determined for us by our circumstances.

It is an ethic of character which helps us make sense of Issabell Basic’s story and use it as an opportunity for moral development. We cannot, post-Nuremburg, simply write off people like Basic as sociopaths, totally unlike us. Nor, I think, can we simply chalk up her actions to her circumstances or to human nature. Not everybody in situations like the one Basic found herself in succumb to the same violence. By appealing to character, we can see how Basic was formed by her community and by her own actions to see ethnic Serbs through a sort of lens that made it possible to torture and kill them. She became a person capable of such actions by habituation, not by nature or by circumstances alone.

At the end of The Age of Empathy, de Waal writes that we have a “capacity to connect to and understand others and make their situation our own. . . To call upon this inborn capacity can only be to any society’s advantage.” We might add that this inborn capacity needs to be fostered and developed through the stories we tell ourselves, the symbols we see the world through, and the practices we participate in. But at the end of the day, we must say that Issabell Basic was not “just being human.” Humans can do so much better than that.