I’ve always been fascinated by the British serial killer Fred West. I remember when the bodies were first found beneath his patio at number 25, Cromwell Street in 1994. I recall the constant rain, the body bags, and the soft Gloucester accents of the policemen – “We ‘ave reason to bulieve thaat there are moore budies buried in the baasement.” Most of all, I remember the photographs of Fred and his wife Rose celebrating Christmas. They were scenes of normality from lives lived by millions of working-class folk back then: brown wall paper, kipper ties, bad teeth, huge glasses, mauve carpet, sideburns. After cutting the turkey and enjoying a glass of wine, Fred and Rose would get into their van, find a lost girl, rape and kill her. They even tortured and molested their own children. We’ll never know how many people died in the charnel house on Cromwell Street. Fred hanged himself before he could incriminate his wife.

The British TV station ITV is running a two part drama about Fred West’s arrest and eventual suicide. It’s a smashing bit of TV, well acted and thoughtful. Fred is played by Dominic West as a witty, charming individual who toys happily with the police (at one point he claims to speak with the spirits of his victims). He is undone only by his narcissistic wife, Rose – portrayed as a foul mouthed demon by Monica Dolan. Rose is his Lady Macbeth, and the serial implies that she was far crueler than he. Fred disgusts us, but he is bizarre and cheeky enough to make us want to find out who he killed next.

But this was not the Fred West I knew, writes Neil Derbyshire in the Daily Mail. “Most of West’s workmates found him creepy and crass, and his ‘friends’ were mainly men he invited to his home to have sex with his wife for money. Dominic West has genuine charm, Fred West did not.” After spending two months reporting on West in court, Derbyshire concluded that he was a “nobody,… twisted in a dopey, almost childlike way, but just nobody. Not particularly cunning, or clever, and definitely not charismatic. Just a sick individual who teamed up with a slightly brighter, sexually deranged woman and thought he could get away with murder.” Why didn’t the real Fred West make it onto our screens? Perhaps because he was boring and bad TV. But, in a way, the more “dopey” he might have seemed, the more terrifying the drama would have been.

What is particularly disturbing about the Wests is how long they got away with their shenanigans. At school, their kids talked about their siblings being “buried under the patio” and the teachers just ignored it. Countless social workers visited the house and came away satisfied. Fred was in court a number of times accused of rape; the charges were often dismissed. A judge once apologized for wasting his time. Fred even offered to sell homemade porn to his local public library. The librarians politely declined, but didn’t think to call the police. Society didn’t ignore Fred West: he was in the dock practically every other weekend. Rather, it normalized his behavior and categorized his family as a “nuisance” but not a “threat”. The bureaucracy tagged and labeled him and passed his kids from agency to agency, until their cuts and bruises had become a footnote in a mountain of paperwork. One of the reasons why this happened is that Fred was so uncharismatic. Like most serial killers, he maintained a home and a family and always said “please” and “thank you”; and he never, ever cut in line. He was ordinary. Rose was ordinary too, and is now leading a prosaic life in jail. Apparently she uses her £16 a month allowance to buy frilly dresses from online catalogues. She’s lost the Deidre Rashid glasses too.

Society needs to believe that only extraordinary people do terrible things. And so Fred West has been transformed into the smiling monster. The reality is that he was just like you or I, except a little inbred, misled, and probably suffering from a blocked synapse. One of the great lies of the modern age is that man is innately good. Actually, he’s innately bad and requires laws and parenting to keep him in order. Under certain conditions, his evil comes to the fore. The British are the worst people in the world for believing their own press, but last month they got a horrible reminder of the nature of Original Sin when thousands took the opportunity of a race riot in Tottenham to torch cars and break into shops. When the dust settled, we discovered that among their number were an Olympic ambassador and a teaching assistant. What motivated them to riot wasn’t poverty or race, it was opportunity. They are the offspring of a generation that hasn’t had cultural indoctrination in being good. The evil in them has been excused and even tolerated. They are, in the parlance of liberalism, “victims”. And victims – of poverty, racism, injustice, or the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal – can do no wrong. Until, that is, they really do wrong – and then society enacts its cumbersome and cruel punishment of life without parole.

With the right dose of bad chemicals or mental stress, anyone can do terrible things. War is a good stimulus. During the Soviet occupation of Berlin in 1945, an estimated 2 million women were raped by Red Army soldiers; some as many as 60-70 times. Roughly 240,000 women died as a consequence, some due to violence inflicted, others in backstreet abortions. Similar atrocities occurred during the Japanese occupation of Nanking in the 1930s. Japanese officers would walk into schools, remove female teachers in front of their pupils, and rape them in the playground. Often the women were then murdered with swords or bamboo sticks. They were now “unclean”. What made Fred West a real freak of history was that he did what he did outside of wartime. As an SS officer or the commissar of a Gulag, he might have won promotion.

Of course, only a tiny percentage of us would ever contemplate doing what Fred did – because nature and nurture have clipped the wings of the beast within us. But it is important to recognize the broad potential for human beings to do wrong. Part of where the West went awry in the last fifty years was in the slow divestment of moral consensus. We convinced ourselves not just that people walking angels, but that it is discipline and harsh judgment that corrupts them. We liberated ourselves with an orgy of sexual and intellectual freedom. That orgy didn’t create Fred West, but it made it harder to identify his perversity.

We have just passed the anniversary of Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. The philosopher Hannah Arendt described the behavior and crimes of this Nazi bureaucrat as representative of the “banality of evil”. Reflecting on her analysis, the eminent psychotherapist Elisabeth Young-Bruehl writes, “True villains and true psychopaths are, fortunately, rather rare; but, in the right circumstances, becoming unfeelingly obedient and inhuman in this way can become a common condition. When political life atrophies and debate and questioning cease, while thoughtful moral experience is blocked internally, the resulting capacity for evil can spread like an epidemic.” Sadly, our culture has learned nothing from Eichmann or Arendt. West’s revolting career is a damning indictment of the “thoughtlessness” that continues to pervade it.