My editor included that quotation in her email when she made her offer for “Lizzie and the Lost Baby.” It is attributed to Captain Gustave Gilbert, a US army psychologist assigned to observe the Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg trials. I've thought about it a lot recently in the context of story and antagonist (and recent horrifying news).
Evil is frequently defined in a religious context—as a sinful, wicked, morally bad, supernatural force. Evil is the opposite of good. But I see it more in the way that Captain Gilbert describes it, with the religious connotations removed. Evil as a “lack of empathy” makes perfect sense to me because empathy is the ability to share and understand someone else’s feelings and emotions and to respond to those feelings and emotions in an appropriate way.
If you cannot empathize with some group of your fellow humans, if you think of them as something “lesser,” then it becomes simple to justify abhorrent acts against them. If you have no empathy for your ten-year-old captive, you can strap explosives to her body, send her into a crowded market, and blow her up with absolutely no compunction. She is “lesser”—she is merely a means to your end. If you have no empathy with your hostages, you can point your gun and end their lives with absolutely no compunction. They are “lesser”—they are a means to your end. If you have no empathy with the people in the ghetto, you can herd them into a gas chamber and murder them all. If you have no empathy, you can engage in acts which you can justify, but the rest of us see as evil.
Donna Jo Napoli gave an unforgettable talk about censorship at the 2011 LASCBWI conference. She told her audience that there are two kinds of child: “protected” and “unprotected.” Unprotected children may live in grinding poverty, and/or be abused by family members or society, and/or be exposed to danger on a routine basis. If unprotected children can read stories about kids in similar situations to their own, stories with violence, or racism, or psychological trauma, or drug abuse—name your horror—and see the protagonists overcoming those situations, they no longer feel alone. They’re comforted. Censoring those books withholds a valuable resource from children who need it most. But Donna Jo Napoli thought it was equally important for the protected children to read those stories: they will probably never encounter similar situations in their own lives, but reading books about difficult topics helps them develop empathy for others in those situations. Without empathy, they may become intolerant. Without empathy, they may feel entitled to judge others. Without empathy, they may display bigotry and prejudice. In a compassionate civilized society people try to understand one another—to develop empathy. A book is a safe way to develop empathy.
I have an evil character in my story. He commits a reprehensible act, and he does so because he lacks any empathy toward his victims—I see him as a sociopath. There are other, slightly more sympathetic, characters in the story who also commit abhorrent acts. They display bigotry and prejudice to one specific group of people (gypsy travelers) and are able to justify their actions because they lack any empathy toward that group. We would probably not describe them as evil people, but they are evil doers in the context of the story.
The human capacity for evil never ceases to astound me, whether it be genocide on a massive scale, an act of terrorism, a public beheading, or murder and violence on a small scale. As a writer, I explore my own feelings about the world through my stories and characters. Elijah represents the underdog (I have a soft spot for underdogs). When “Lizzie and the Lost Baby” is finally available to children (in January 2016), I will count it as a great success if the book finds an audience who can empathize with Elijah, can recognize that he might be “other” to many, but still deserves respect and understanding.