Evil: what’s in a word?

What does it take to get someone to go into a shopping mall with an AK47 and mow down random strangers?  A failure of those acts of imagination that connect us to people we have never known.  

Henrietta L. Moore
1 October 2013

Samantha Lewthwaite, labeled the "evil White Widow" in the aftermath of the Westgate attacks in Nairobi. Credit: Demotix. All rights reserved.

Margarethe Von Trotta’s new film on the philosopher Hannah Arendt is out, and suddenly ‘the banality of evil’, the phrase she made so famous, is back in current usage. The tragic events in Nairobi last week inevitably invoked more mention of evil. After the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in the city by Al-Shabab militants protesting Kenya’s ‘occupation’ of Somalia had come to its dreadful conclusion, the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, declared: “Kenya has stared down evil and triumphed.”  

We all recognize that evil is a conundrum not only for moral philosophers, but for each of us.  What turns ordinary people into brutal killers? In her reflection on Adolf Eichmann’s trial for war crimes, Arendt argued: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” Evil is thus, she argued, not the preserve of the psychopath, but an inherent capacity at once banal and terrifying.

Does this mean then that evil is just the manifestation of some moral imperfection in all of us, perhaps the failure or the limit of human reason?  The cries of pain and anguish heard in Nairobi last week are heart wrenching in part because of their familiarity. They are sadly recognizable from many other atrocities, all of which - in one way or another - seem to be the legacy of 9/11.  Arendt’s broader argument about Eichmann and his role in the Holocaust was that while the deeds were monstrous, the doer was in fact quite ordinary – a bureaucrat carrying out a set of tasks, not through ideological conviction but through uncritical and unthinking obedience. 

For her, Eichmann’s crime was non-thinking, something quite distinct from not-thinking. Eichmann acted consciously, but operationalized the systematic extermination of others through accepted routine in such a fashion that moral revulsion and critical judgement were never brought into play. His crime was to make the crime against humanity possible, by normalizing it, by rationalizing the unthinkable.

Arendt’s arguments about Eichmann have been extensively criticized, but she does force us to think again about the contours and limits of moral responsibility under dictatorships and repressive systems of power more generally. The logic of her position is that we should all have responsibility for thinking outside the limits of our social and political circumstances, or that at the very least we should avoid uncritical acceptance of values, policies, world views, in other words, non-thinking. But is this kind of moral and political vigilance actually possible? Many citizens of Western Europe, for example, clearly feel themselves to be living within morally acceptable political and social systems. The democratic imperative, the ability to change the government, is the guarantee of such protections. 

Most of us are sure that we could never be an Adolf Eichmann, but Arendt’s point is that there are Eichmanns everywhere. Not – and she was very clear on this point – that there is a little bit of Eichmann in all of us, that all humans have the capacity for moral failure or non-thinking, but that human situations and societies continue to throw up Eichmanns or at least the potential for them.

For example, we have grown used in the west to thinking in a rather lazy way that al-Shabaab militants or the wider set of diverse groups now labeled ‘terrorists’ are ideological fanatics who are brainwashed or trained up in camps or radicalized in some way or other.  But when we do this, what exactly do we have in mind - the idea that as a result of indoctrination they are no longer capable of making moral judgements? If this is the case then to what degree can we hold them morally responsible for their actions?  Their acts of terror and murderous destruction involving innocent and unconnected lives are justified by a world view and/or sets of values that for them condone their actions, legitimized in terms of old and specious arguments about means and ends.

I am not suggesting that there are useful comparisons to be drawn here between the systematic extermination of millions under a brutal totalitarian state system and the highly visible, deliberately random seeming attacks of radical groups around the world on unsuspecting civilians.  But there may be some value in reflecting on the problem of non-thinking.

We tend now to use the word evil to refer to acts of intentional malevolence committed by human beings.  This is a secular understanding of evil set firmly within the human grasp and there is more than a little irony in the fact that it is so often applied to the acts of  those who claim to be defending a specific understanding of different religious faiths.  Faith here is often reduced – quite unnecessarily – into an absolute distinction between world views and values.

Many reports on the Westgate attack mentioned that at the outset the attackers shouted out that Muslims should identify themselves and leave the mall.  In reality, many Muslims were among the dead and injured and many more have been the victims of al-Shabaab bombing attacks in Somalia.  So in what sense are such attacks about differences of faith?

Evil is a conundrum for us because it is both devastating in its effects and seemingly inexplicable in its origins.  What does it take emotionally, experientially, rationally, ideologically to get someone to go into a shopping mall with an AK47 and mow down random strangers? 

I think it requires more than Arendt suggests, more than non-thinking. I think it requires a failure of the imagination, of those specific acts of imagination that connect us to people we have never known. We perform these acts of imagination whenever we think about any social unit to which we have commitments beyond our immediate family. We all believe that we belong in significant ways and have allegiances to larger groupings, whether communities of faith or nations or regions, class groupings, fraternity groups or football clubs.

Of course, we will know many who are members of the groups to which we belong, but many of our strongest allegiances are to social institutions most of whose members we will never know. The Emirates sports stadium in London holds just over 60,000, but the number of Arsenal football club fans worldwide is reported to top 100 million – and that may be an underestimate. These allegiances make us who we are, but they also attach us to others and make us aware of their circumstances, values and world views. They are what allows us to recognize and value what we share with others, and to recognize them as people like us.

The term evil is perhaps a necessary one – it is a way of setting limits to cruelty and malevolence – what the philosopher Peter Dews has so aptly termed “desecrations of the human”.  Yet to label something evil is also to cut off all debate: perhaps it is even evidence in its own way of a failure of the imagination. 

This is because, as Dews points out, when we label something evil we cannot easily find the terms on which we might punish or even forgive such an act. This inevitably seems to drive courses of action based on retaliation or even elimination. Take US drone strikes against targets in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as an example. Figures are speculative but reliable reports suggest that around 4,000 people have been killed by such strikes, many of them civilians.

These attacks come without warning, and as many commentators have noted cannot be justified under any definition of ‘imminent threat’ to the United States. Terrorist leaders are meant to be the target, but of those killed only around 300 of those killed could be so classified. The rest are civilians, the so-called ‘collateral damage’.

Randomly killing innocent strangers whom you do not know and who do not share your views sounds frighteningly familiar. What term might we use for that?

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