Outside view: Unbridled ego damage

By HUGH PRICE, Special to United Press International  |  March 8, 2002 at 12:23 AM
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WASHINGTON, March 6 (UPI) -- Ordinarily, I probably wouldn't have thought to connect the two trials, occurring worlds apart from each other.

The first, which ended Feb. 11 in the U.S. District Court in Phoenix, Ariz., involved one man who had waged a frightening but limited campaign of arson that did not result in any loss of life.

The second, now under way before the international court in The Hague, Netherlands, involves one of the most monstrous figures of our time, Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia and Serbia. Milosevic is charged with fomenting a campaign of genocide and other crimes against humanity during the three horrific civil wars that ravaged the Balkans in the 1990s.

I wouldn't have thought to connect them but for two reasons.

One is that this past week I happened to be in Phoenix and was struck again by the contrast the tranquility of the land presents between, on the one hand, retirees trying to have it all while getting away from it all, and, on the other, immigrants, largely from Mexico, trying to grasp a piece of the American Dream.

The second reason is that I read the interview the New York Times conducted with Mark Warren Sands, the Phoenix arsonist, which it published the day he was sentenced to 18 years in prison and ordered to pay $2.8 million in restitution.

Sands, 50, the married father of three children, had been a public relations and marketing executive until he was laid off. He lived in an affluent suburb of Phoenix and was respected for his involvement in civic activities. But during seven months in 2000, he set eight fires at construction sites for new housing developments, all the while claiming in anonymous notes that an ecological terrorist group was responsible.

I remembered the case vaguely and I thought how bizarre it was -- until I read the first three paragraphs of Sands' interview.

"At first, Mark Warren Sands says," the Times interview opens, "it was a matter of pique. Someone was building a house in his upscale Phoenix suburb where Mr. Sands did not want it. So, he says, he burned it down."

The interview goes on to say that "as fear spread that Phoenix was under attack by eco-terrorists fighting residential sprawl (Sands) ... began lighting fires seemingly to prove something to himself: that he still knew how to run a campaign."

Sands tells the reporter, "I knew what a good story was; I knew how to sell it. My drug was the news media coverage. There was the excitement of waiting for the media coverage to come out. There was a sense of power."

I was fascinated, and, simultaneously, chilled -- and thus, not surprised when, at the end of the interview, Sands said, "I feel for the fire victims, but the real victims are my wife, my daughter, my sons. The hell I've created for the people who care about me is almost unimaginable."

In other words, despite the damage he had done to others, for Mark Warren Sands, it was still, as they say, all about him.

I wasn't surprised that Mark Warren Sands did not really repent his crimes, because by then I had marked him as an example of the damage that unbridled egotism can do.

The notion of "unbridled egotism" is what Henry James Sr., the father of the 19th-century Anglo-American novelist, Henry James, defined as "the root of evil." These words identify the overweening vanity that, in too many people, can't be held in check by respect for others, compassion, and a sense of decency.

The damage that the unbridled egotism of Slobodan Milosevic did, of course, far outstrips that of a Mark Warren Sands.

Even now, it is difficult to fully grasp what a 1999 report in the Washington Post called the "chronicle of barbarism" that engulfed the new enclaves of Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia and Kosovo. Milosevic bears significant responsibility for transforming these lands into what Nightline's Ted Koppell called during one program a horrible testament to "the wreckage of ethnic hatred."

Unfortunately, we know all too well that Slobodan Milosevic was not the only one in that tortured land, and in many other parts of the world, being driven by unbridled egotism.

The "chronicle of barbarism" of just the last decade alone has touched many nations.

Humanity will never rid itself of the damage that the unbridled egotism of some can do. But one effective way of combating it has been on display in these two cases. It is the use of the rule of law, impartially applied, to affirm that respect for the rights -- and the humanity -- of others is paramount in human affairs. It is the only way we can continue to co-exist.


Hugh B. Price is the president of the National Urban League.

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