Undefinable concept leads to irrational behavior
By Mary O’Brien
While the word “evil” seems to hold particular shudder power over us, it appears to describe nothing in particular, effectively relieving us of the responsibility of preventing it. President Obama used the word twice in his Nobel Peace Prize speech which similarly, unfortunately, described no war in particular, and pointed to no particularly incisive commitments to altering the conditions that lead to war.
“For make no mistake,” Obama imperiously warned, “evil does exist in the world.” He followed this with the consensus-building example of Hitler: “A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.”
In a passing nod to humility (and there wasn’t much of it amid his unreflective defense of a moral, war-waging America, “the world’s sole military superpower”), he noted that individually, at least, “We make mistakes and fall victim to the temptations of pride and power and sometimes evil.” We fall victim to evil? Now there’s a particularly passive relationship to horrible behaviors.
But evil exists largely in the eye of the beholder. A fair number of right-wingers consider Obama evil, and many regard Al-Qaeda as evil. Others figure homosexuals or abortion providers are evil. Perhaps most people would agree that the Hutus were evil in their massacre of Tutsis, but then the Hutus probably regarded as evil the previous Tutsi governors who had ruled heavily over the majority Hutus.
If I were to name something with the shape of evil, it might be industrious humanity’s warming of the globe via greenhouse gas emissions, and the accompanying mass extinction of many of our distant and close relatives on Earth. As an environmental activist, however, I won’t get any good results by attributing to evil our war on Earth’s living. For starters, evil isn’t behind global warming. Concrete public economic policies, private economic behaviors and population increases are behind global warming.
But getting back to Hitler, the embodiment of evil. I was born eight months after Hitler committed suicide and four months after my nation dropped nuclear bombs on the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I must have been about 5 when I recall my father telling me that the seeds of World War II were to be found in the Allies’ economically harsh and politically humiliating treatment of Germany after World War I.
There are a lot of things my father said that I found less compelling, but I believe that particular conversation about World War II influenced how I see all human behaviors in the world: Horrific as some behaviors may be, they do have roots in earlier events. Horrifying behaviors aren’t justified by preceding events, but they may be partially understandable in light of those preceding events. If we don’t want horrors to take place, we had better try to trace how horrors came about and do some hard thinking and acting to create different outcomes. Yes, “a nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies,” but less punitive political behavior in early 20th century might have prevented the rise of Hitler and his ilk. People tend to react badly to being humiliated.
Jason Burke, a foreign correspondent for The Observer who has lived in Afghanistan and Pakistan and written extensively on terrorism, writes the following in an article entitled, “What Exactly Does Al-Qaeda Want?”:
[The] perception that a belligerent West is set on the humiliation, division and eventual conquest of the Islamic world is at the root of Muslim violence. The militants believe they are fighting a last-ditch battle for the survival of their society, culture, religion and way of life. They are fighting in self-defence and understand, as we in the West also believe, that self-defence can justify using tactics that might be frowned on in other circumstances.
In his Nobel speech, Obama said, “[As] a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [Ghandi’s and Martin Luther King’s] examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.”
Could Al-Qaeda be saying the same as self-appointed defenders of their culture?
The concept of evil is a shortcut first into passivity, and then into violent reaction. Gotta fight evil with whatever it takes, since it comes out of nowhere, right?
Mary O’Brien has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She is currently dividing her time between Eugene and Castle Valley, Utah.