Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Halloween Sunday Service 2010: The Faces of Evil

#163 “For the Earth Forever Turning,” #201 “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah (Since I Laid My Burden Down,” #108 “My Life Flows on in Endless Song.” Music: “Chanson Triste,” cello and piano.

Personal Reflection by David Paul
It was Halloween evening and our parents would be out for the evening. At age 12, it was my first Halloween not trick or treating. Alan, my older brother by three years, and I were responsible for handing out candy to the trick or treaters.

Alan had an idea about how we would do this. I eagerly listened and was easily convinced to go along. First, we went into the kitchen and got the largest knife we could find. Then, we found a small piece of wood but thick enough for a knife to stick into. We taped the wood onto his back so the wood was firmly placed. The knife would go through his shirt into the wood looking like he had a knife in his back. Just in case this wasn’t scary enough, we put some ketchup on his shirt.

The plan was for Alan to be lying on the floor behind me in the hallway as I opened the door for the children and choruses of “trick or treat!” They would see Alan on the floor as I handed out the candy and that’s when the fun would begin!
Some children didn’t notice him, some didn’t care or understand, some acted puzzled and a few were really scared. Alan always got up before the trick or treaters walked off into the night just so they didn’t go home and tell their parents there was a dead guy at the Paul household.
Toward the end of the evening, a neighbor boy whom Alan didn’t get along with very well, for reasons long since forgotten, came to the door. Following the trick or treat ritual, he was taken with Alan lying on the floor and seemed to act more curious than many of the earlier trick or treaters. Alan hadn’t gotten up yet as the boy peered into the hallway. Just before the boy walked away, he said, “Oh well, I never liked him anyway.”
I light the Chalice today… for honesty.

Reading “The Stream of Life” by Rabindranath Tagore
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers. It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and death, in ebb and in flow. I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

It’s Halloween, and a new set of slasher movies is at the cinema, and classic old ones are on TV. So many of us are fascinated with sadists, psychopaths, beastly criminals, and assassins. Perhaps you do not partake, but TV ratings and box office records tell that many of us do. Hannibal the Cannibal, Norman Bates, and Dexter; the Zodiac, Boston Strangler, and Son of Sam—all are famous names, both real and fictional. Even as our heart weeps, we are drawn to news reports of the latest atrocity in our own town, or accounts of a serial killer’s trial. Does this fascination make us bad? Does it mean that we’re evil?

According to philosopher Susan Neiman, watching this stuff doesn’t make us bad, but it gives us the comfort of distance. Depictions of perverse crimes can make evil seem as “terrifying, alien, and inscrutable as a black hole worlds away.” That’s better than considering the capacity for evil in our own beating hearts, or our neighbors.’ Yet only two percent of evil acts are committed by those we’d call madmen; the vast majority of evil is perpetrated by ordinary people. Evil is perpetrated by systems, organizations and countries made up of ordinary people and staffed by them. It’s permitted to continue by people like us.


Dictator Joseph Stalin starved and shot millions of his own people in the Soviet Union and those of other countries, yet he pulled very few triggers. He ran a network of forced-labor camps in Siberia. He took many lives and caused incredible misery, but he never set foot in most of those labor camps. The camps were not run by the inmates.


Who is evil? Neiman says we can’t say. We can’t know who is evil. None of us can claim the right or power to see into another’s soul. But is it not a basic impulse in our nature to sort out whether another being is dangerous or friendly? Perhaps, but can you tell if someone is evil from the look on his face? By the person’s level of wealth or education, or degree of poverty? By gender or genetics? By color of skin? By religious identity, or lack of one? Too often, that’s the kind of measure human beings have used to divide one another, and kill.


It’s so tempting to condemn a criminal’s soul, not only their crime. Last week in Mexico, drug-trafficking cartels ambushed a birthday party full of teenagers, and opened fire at a car wash, killing and wounding dozens, and spreading terror. So disgusting. I want to condemn the souls of the criminals, not only their crimes. When my government outrages me, when a president, vice-president, or cabinet secretary appalls me with his cold hypocrisy, I want to write name him evil, call him a monster. I want to cut him off from the human family. I want to cut out his heart. Given half the chance I think I could!
Oh…. Umm… Well, I guess I do think I know who is evil. And if you think me merciless about a secretary of defense or a general, you should see what thoughts come into my head while driving in heavy traffic, and what condemning words come out of my mouth.


Susan Neiman says we should focus not on the nature of the perpetrator, but on the actions. Furthermore, she says we shouldn’t try to measure “good intentions” versus bad ones. Intentions are not relevant; actions are. Some of us behave well toward others out of habit, not good intentions themselves. Some of us do so because fear getting punished. We observe a moral law because it’s backed up by a civil one. Isn’t that why we raised the standards on driving under the influence of alcohol, and made the punishments worse for drunk driving—because appealing to people’s good intentions wasn’t working? Likewise, many people commit evil out of what they consider good intentions. They think they’re doing the right thing.


After the Holocaust, a Nazi soldier defended his good intentions. He shot only children, he said, because he saw that when his comrades killed mothers, their children couldn’t survive. He was sparing them that fate.
The pioneers who settled this continent—and the government that backed them up—thought they had a right to take over Indian lands. They didn’t respect the humanity of the natives, or their cultures, religions, or their claim to their territories. Their intentions weren’t bad; they could justify their actions. When President Roosevelt signed an order for Japanese Americans to be taken from their homes during World War II and held in camps, most other Americans thought it the wise and safe thing to do, or feared speaking up against it, or trusted their government’s good intentions. After the war, black and white soldiers came home, after having fought in segregated platoons. President Harry Truman integrated the military. Yet when Congress passed a federal law to outlaw lynching, and protect all the black veterans coming home, Truman vetoed it. He wasn’t against it. But he said it wasn’t politically feasible at the time. He needed to retain the support of white Southern Democrats. The reason we have democracy is that good intentions are not relevant: it is actions that matter, and actions for which governments as well as individuals must be held accountable.


We must be willing to call evil what it is. So what is it? Evil is an action or a condition that destroys or degrades human life, dignity, freedom, and sense of safety. Evil generates fear, desperation, and grief. It can lead to resentment and revenge—more evil. I can extend this definition to embrace victims beyond our human family. Animal cruelty is evil. In fact, I think any practice or system that causes unnecessary suffering to other beings is evil. A system that wipes out a species is evil. But what about species of polio virus? Well, I’m not sure. For today, let’s focus on human-to-human evils.


We must be open to exploring evil, try to understand it. For example, violence against a child is evil, no matter the cause. It’s a fact that many sexually assaulted children have grown up to be abusers themselves, or other kinds criminals. To note this is no reason to excuse anyone’s crime. Yet some argue that to try to understand evil is to excuse it. They might say: “You know, most people who were abused as children do not abuse others when they grow up.” This is true. However, most adults who abuse others did grow up with abuse. To understand need not be to excuse. It can help us to prevent further evil.


After the 2001 terrorist attacks, government leaders spoke of clear lines between the good ones and the evil ones. If we are the good ones, then whatever we do to stop or take revenge on the evil ones should not be subject to criticism. Something we’d call an atrocity if done by others, becomes excusable if we do it. On the other side of the argument about terrorism, some hesitated to label an atrocity as evil, as that seemed too simple as an explanation. Neiman says we must be willing to name evil for what it is, as well as to understand it.


To take away the humanity of terrorists, war criminals, or street thugs is to take away responsibility, to absolve them of their human choice.
Using ordinary college students, psychology professors have created lab experiments in which the subjects are given to believe they can control the degree of pain or humiliation that other subjects experience. The prisoners (so called) were actors, in fact, and they played along. The students in control thought they were inflicting electric shocks in greater degree, up to harmful levels, but with little encouragement, they raised the pain to levels marked as dangerous.


After both World Wars I and II, military researchers found that many soldiers had refused to fire shots at enemy troops advancing on them. Killing a person you could see up close was harder than risking your own life. Technology and psychology came to the rescue. Better weapons now allow us to kill without seeing the whites of their eyes, to shoot from a distance so you don’t have to hear your enemy cry for his mother. We can scope a faraway target, push a button, send a drone bomber. Some overseas drone operators do their work at computers in Nevada! Psychology has made it easier to kill, also. Military training degrades the humanity of the enemy, calling them vermin and much worse names. According to Neiman, assassins are trained to kill by exposing them to gruesome videos, forcing their eyes open and ahead while cruelty is unfolded before them. Rebel armies in several countries (and government armies in a few of them) create child soldiers by hooking them on drugs and forcing them to kill their parents. Not only does this make them hated in their villages, so they cannot return, the trauma robs them of a soul.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote a book about Adolph Eichmann, the engineer of the genocide of six million people. Watching him at his trial, she describes him not as a monster or lunatic but as a boring, banal bureaucrat. Eichmann’s defense is that he was a victim too. He was only following orders. He, and a lot of other people.
Yet some people refused orders. Some gave sanctuary to Jews and the other targeted minorities. Many resisted the Nazi terror, and some paid for it with their lives. Citing Arendt, Nieman writes: “Most evil is done by people who never made their minds up to do evil at all.” In her study Arendt concludes that there was nothing you could identify about people that would have predicted who would have chosen complicity or compromise with evil: not education or status, family size or faith. Some said NO to putting up with evil; others didn’t.

We have the ability to say NO to evil, and we have the ability to be drawn into it. Those in charge of the mechanisms of destruction know this. This is why, when someone is to be executed, a blindfold or hood is placed over the face. This is not for the comfort of the condemned, but for the executioner’s mental health—so he’ll be able to kill in the future.


The Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn says: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.” If only!
“But [he continues] the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”


How do I participate in evil? If I take some time for uncomfortable reflection, I can come up with a lot of ideas. I drove my car to get here today and will drive home. At my friendly gas station I filled up on fuel that could have come from oil wells in the recently assaulted Gulf of Mexico, in the police state of Burma, or in Nigeria, where corrupt officials enrich themselves and use violence to destroy tribal villages and uproot families from their cultures, homes and heritage. And that’s the damage petroleum causes even before it goes through the engine and out the exhaust pipe. As a colleague of mine has said, “Every tank of gas I buy has a little bit of blood in it.” I didn’t shed the blood, but I’m connected to it. This does not make me a criminal, but it shouldn’t let me off the hook.


New Yorker magazine writer Seymour Hersh investigated the torture and humiliation of detainees and war prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, run by this country after the invasion of Iraq. When the scandal broke, with pictures of unspeakable cruelty, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the abuse was the work of “a few bad apples.” Hersh found evidence that the barrel itself was fashioned to invite abuse. Individuals of low rank were directly involved, but the abuse could not have taken place without the knowledge and intentions of high levels of military and intelligence officials. The abuse was too sophisticated—sexually degrading Muslim men, beating them, blaspheming their faith, terrifying them with attack dogs. U.S. Army personnel must follow the Uniform Code of Military Justice; they can be prosecuted if they violate its restrictions on torture. But intelligence personnel and National Guardsmen were not trained in it our bound by it, and they were given access to the inmates. The time was well chosen for “roughing up” the inmates with little oversight.


Susan Neiman says: you can set up the conditions to invite and incite people to torture without even asking them to, without using the word. Yet at least one low level soldier felt revulsion at the atrocities that he exposed them. Moreover, much of the country protested.
We still have a moral sense that torture is wrong. Why else would government officials need to hide an act of torture behind words like “enhanced interrogation”? Does it matter which side did this to whom? Does any atrocity become only a mistake if it’s done in the name of my country’s freedom or my security? If another person justifies his terrorism in the name of his religion, does it make the cruelty more evil than if I were to do it in the name of my own?


The demagogues of our time call criticism like this nothing but “hating America.” Other demagogues have their catch phrases to cover themselves: enemies of Islam, enemies of Christianity, enemies of the proletariat, enemies of the state. Dishonesty in defense of evil is also evil.
Susan Neiman says criticizing this kind of evil is everyone’s responsibility. She traces it not only to the moral philosopher Immanuel Kant, but also to Kindergarten lessons: “[We] are morally bound to clean up our own messes first. Whether your sister’s mess is equal or greater is not, in the first instance, your business. This is a lesson we (try to) teach to our children…. If you were creating a world, wouldn’t you create one where everyone took care of their own garbage before pointing to yours?


Neiman says: “None of us [is] in a position to size up another’s soul.” Okay, I know I don’t have that power. Yet my outrage tempts me. Outrage is good, she says. Disgust and revulsion are necessary. “The language of shame is the most effective moral weapon there is,” Neiman says. We must fight against a culture of shamelessness.

We must make moral judgments about actions—and work to stop destructive, degrading actions. We must celebrate the courage of ordinary people who oppose and expose evil for what it is. We must engage in moral reasoning, together. We must remember we have choices and freedoms, and our actions matter.


Our liberal faith tradition affirms that every person has inherent worth, and has free will. This means that we all have the power to choose between good and evil.
I said that it’s tempting to condemn the soul of a criminal, not only the crime. It’s tempting, but a waste of time and energy. Our passion can be spent less on hatred and vengeance, and more on preventing the conditions that make evil possible. We can hold one another accountable, hold governments accountable, and expose wrong. We can explore our own compromises, and own up to them, even if we’re not sure yet how to respond to them. Our time and care can be spent better on tending the wounds of the victims, caring for those who suffered and for those grieving their losses.


We can look at evil, and expose it, condemn it. We can use reason to examine our own responsibility and our own decisions and choices. We can acknowledge the ordinariness of destructive choices. We can give praise to the ordinariness of heroic ones.

Searching for truth, celebrating beauty, and affirming life—each one is a daily, ordinary practice. Giving thanks, showing gratitude, is also an ordinary practice. Taking responsibility is an ordinary practice as well. To do so is heroic, whether on a small scale or a great one.

Let us be grateful for all acts of courage, all gestures of mercy and kindness. Let us praise all choices made that affirm life, today and every day. So may it be.


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