We may not be able to define evil, but most of us think we know it when we see it.
Unfortunately, that leads to equations such as Bush=Hitler, or the bumper sticker I saw on a car yesterday that said, “War is just terrorism with a bigger budget.”
And it also leads to the false notion that we can truly understand the genesis of evil, when sometimes it’s hard enough to simply recognize it, and to deal with it in an appropriate and timely fashion.
Hannah Arendt caused a hue and cry when she watched the Adolf Eichmann trial and described the defendant’s demeanor as showing “the banality of evil” (scroll down to #6, here). Suzanne Field’s piece on evil, in today’s Real Clear Politics, refers back to Arendt and describes instead what Field calls the “frivolity” of evil. Although I think “frivolity” is a poor choice of words, Field is making a good point nevertheless:
The devil wears many disguises, and one of them is the appearance of normality, perhaps the most dangerous phenomenon of all, because it’s a disguise unto itself.
Evil is real, but evildoers are all too human. In the photograph we know of him, Mohammad Atta’s eyes may look as though all human kindness had been scooped out of him, but his family probably didn’t see him that way—although the Portland Maine employee who watched him go by and onto that airplane on that fatal day said that he looked like a “walking corpse.”
Hitler had a strange look to us, but the German people found him highly charismatic and appealing. Ahmadinejad, as Fields points out, has no evil aura:
His clowning, his weaving, his bobbing, his smiling on the podium at Columbia University lent an air of normality to his lies and deceitfulness. He looked silly at times, but he didn’t frighten anyone with his stage presence.
Our wish for the mark of Cain, or cloven hooves, or some other clear sign of evil originates in the fact that it is only by their works that we know them, and by then it can be too late.
Of course, evil is sometimes telegraphed way ahead of time by words, and this is true in the case of Hitler and Ahmadinejad. Why are these words so often ignored by so many?
It’s easy to say it’s all just bluster. It’s easy to think we are too powerful to be seriously threatened by these little people who sound so crazy. Those who made that mistake with Hitler lived to regret it.
But one of the most fundamental errors people make when judging evil is to think we understand it, when we don’t. The fact that Hitler was most definitely a human being leads us to think that if we knew enough facts about him, we could explain the etiology of his evil.
But Hitler’s evil seems to have been much more than the sum of his parts—the illegitimacy, the lousy childhood, the failed art career, the anger at Germany’s WWI defeat. Try as one might—and many have tried—Hitler’s evil can be described and detailed but never understood nor, ultimately, explained.
The other fundamental error people make when judging evil is thinking it is less evil than it actually is, and more amenable to persuasion, argument, or kindness. Because those who do evil are human, we think they are subject to the same fears and doubts, loves and anxieties, concerns and scruples, as the rest of us. Perhaps when they were children they were, although in the cases of sociopaths and psychopaths the notion is that they were born lacking something we tend to call a conscience. At any rate, by the time we know about them, something quite unusual seems to be going on in their psyches.
I think of the example of Stalin who said, on hearing that his son had tried to commit suicide but had only managed to shoot himself in the stomach and live, “He can’t even shoot straight.”
People such as Stalin or Hitler or Ahmadinejad or Saddam Hussein are about power. That is the coin of their realm, and power is their mother tongue, even though they can learn to speak secondary languages in order to give the appearance of reasonableness. Do not forget that it is a facade, and do not believe that you know them. As Field points out about Ahmadinejad:
We may think he was humiliated by the hostility he confronted at Columbia, but maybe he, like Hitler, understands how to play it out to his advantage against the gullible, the feckless and the frightened.
Shakespeare, who may have understood human nature as well as anyone on earth and could speak about it better than anyone on earth, had something to say about all of this, of course. And so I’ll close with his words:
One can smile and smile and be a villain.