The Time Has Come to Study the Face of Evil

By Shore, Paul | The Humanist, November-December 1995 | Go to article overview

The Time Has Come to Study the Face of Evil


Shore, Paul, The Humanist


There are many troubling lessons to be learned from the continuing horror in Bosnia, some more obvious than others. The more easily grasped lessons have to do with the inability of the world community, despite its revulsion at the unending cycle of atrocity and reprisal, to stop the violence. Beyond this sad truth lie other disturbing realities concerning the motivations of those engaged in "ethnic cleansing" and other acts of savagery.

The most pertinent for Americans is the absence of a single individual or group of individuals who can definitevely be blamed for the violence. This is hard for us to accept, since for over a century our government and media have encouraged the demonization of highly visible leaders to explain and simplify complex circumstances resulting in violence. King George III, rather than the British parliament, was blamed for the estrangement that led to the American Revolution. Before the Spanish-American War, it was "Butcher Weyler" whom we learned to hate in Cuba. In World War I, "Kaiser Bill" was the object of our enmity. And in World War II, Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo were the personifications of our enemies. More recently, a demonic Saddam Hussein has been cast in the role of the evil leader responsible for the wrongs we were to right.

Whatever the pluses and minuses of this approach in the past, it won't work in the case of Bosnia. The politicians and generals who nominally lead the various warring groups are no saints, but they are not solely to blame for what has happened. Something far deeper than a generalissimo's bluster has driven both Croats and Serbs to murder children, the elderly, and the mentally handicapped. Historical enmity and differences of religion, ethnic affiliation, and language are contributing factors but do not always provide a completely adequate explanation.

Nor is it simply that those committing the atrocities lack proper education or have not been adequately informed about the rules of civilized behavior as set forth by the United Nations and other bodies. They know better but choose to do otherwise. This is another bitter pill for Americans to swallow, since it goes against our notions both that human beings can improve and that education promotes this improvement. Like many others who have committed atrocities, the killers in Bosnia cannot be objectified as subhuman monsters. In fact, the killers come from rich and highly developed cultural traditions where literacy is the norm and education is valued.

Let us be honest and say that the criminals of Bihac, Srbrnica, and a hundred other nameless places are what they are: men who have chosen to do evil. By evil, I mean not simply the Aristotelian notion of the absence of good, or the lack of knowledge as to what the good might be. Instead let us call evil an active, dynamic capacity for harming others gratuitously, which understands consequences and recognizes but ignores the disapproval of others. The word evil is certainly politically incorrect, with its biblical overtones and judgmental quality. Yet no other word or concept will do. Evil exists, and the time has come to talk about it frankly.

The problem of human evil should not be left just to the theologians and the criminologists to debate. We are aware of and justly celebrate the human capacity to do good, but we must at the same time be wining to examine the human capacity to deliberately do wrong. Atrocities - whether they claim Chinese students, Hutu villagers, or old Bosnian women trying to flee into the woods - should be labeled for the unspeakable evil which they are and, most importantly, should be made the subject of deliberate study in schools.

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