Time Out

Notes from a flaming moderate

The Best of Men, The Worst of Men

Part 2, The Worst

My last blog post (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/time-out/201309/the-best-men-the-worst-men) was a visit to the sublime in the company of wise writers, researchers, and thinkers. I followed them as they contemplated the best of human development and social evolution. That visit was a reassuring tour of triumph over adversity. We found reason to cheer for the triumph of kindness over meanness, of caring over violence. The blogpost was a chance to reflect on the grand human potential for goodness.

But just as there is no good without bad, and no light without darkness, so can there be no credible contemplation of the best of men (women seldom appear in these studies), without acknowledging the worst. Today’s blog post visits the dark side, accompanied by James Dawes, author of  “Evil Men.”

The men of “Evil Men” are elderly war criminals, convicted of committing unspeakable atrocities against civilians in the second Sino Japanese War. “Unspeakable” is a key word in this work, which explores the way horrific evil annihilates language, even as it destroys coherence and shatters reason. Survivors of torture struggle to unburden themselves and share their experience, but language fails them. “There are no words”, they say. At the same time, language colludes with the organized perpetrators of atrocities. They camouflage their depravity with euphemisms.

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Words trouble Dawes in another way, as well. Is it right, he wonders, to give voice to the perpetrators of horror when their victims remain silent? By writing (and reading) about it, are we voyeurs, titillated by the pornography of violence? Furthermore, is it even right to interview these old men—once monsters to their victims, now surprisingly human—is it right to try to “understand” them, or does that come too close to explaining them, rationalizing them, even excusing them? 

There are many ways to categorize behaviors that are wrong—they might be cruel, or wicked, immoral, or criminal. We must try to understand our dark side; after all, as humans, nothing human is alien to us. Having acknowledged this truth, Dawes explores the ways in which evil is distinctive, and helps us identify it, analyze it, and—one must hope—defeat it.

In our time, evil is ideological terrorism; specifically Islamic terrorism, a global scourge. Here are just a few recent examples:

  • Boko Haram, a violent Islamist group hostile to all things Western has attacked, bombed, or burned 50 churches and killed hundreds of Nigerian Christians in the past year (per Religion Today).
  • Suicide bombers in Peshawar, Pakistan last week killed 78 men, women, and children as they left their Sunday church service.
  • At least 67 people—selected for being non-Muslim—were killed, and dozens are still unaccounted for, in the Islamist shooting attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
  • Egypt’s Coptic Christians and their institutions have been violently attacked in the ongoing Muslim Brotherhood vs. military power struggle in that country.

There is an argument to be made in favor of hating evil, rejecting it utterly, thereby making it easier for ordinary, decent people to say NO, the next time it comes around. And it does come around.

Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., is affiliated with the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at the George Washington University.

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