The Epiphany of Evil

Roger L. Simon recently had an epiphany. While reporting from the Durban II conference, he encountered the face of evil: President Ahmadinejad of Iran. He describes this encounter thus:

I heard screaming sirens followed by shrieking motor cycles when Ahmadinejad himself entered … and marched straight across the lobby in what seemed at the time like a goose step a few feet away from me, staring directly at me while waving and smiling in my direction.

I did not wave or smile back.

I couldn \'t. Indeed, I was frozen. I felt suddenly breathless and nauseated, as if I had been kicked brutally in the stomach. I was also dizzy. I wanted to throw up. But no one had touched me and I hadn \'t eaten anything for hours.

It was then, I think, that I found, or noticed, or understood, religion personally for a moment.

Here \'s what I mean.

For most of my life I had rationalized the existence of bad people – or, more specifically, placed them in therapeutic categories. They were aberrant personalities, psychologically disturbed. It wasn \'t that I thought better economic conditions or psychoanalysis or medication or whatever could fix everyone. I was long over that. Some people… serial killers, etc…. had to be locked away forever. They would never get better. But they were simply insane. That \'s what they were.

Still… I had seen whacked murderers like Charles Manson, late OJ Simpson, up close and this wasn \'t the same. This was more than the mental illness model. Far more. For one thing, I had never before had this intense physical sensation when confronted with another human being. Nor had I wanted to vomit. Not for Manson. Not for anyone. This was different.

It was almost unreal, like being in a movie, in a certain way. I know comparisons to Hitler are invidious, in fact usually absurd, but I was feeling the way I imagined I would have felt opposite Hitler.

I was in the presence of pure Evil.

In the seemingly seamless garment which is secular rationalism, there is no place for evil. Oh, to be sure, the word is flung about like sweat from a boxer’s well-placed uppercut — slathered and spit upon all who deviate from progressive secular orthodoxy. But true evil — that inexplicable behavior which chills the soul and touches that primal inner fear — finds no satisfactory solution in our modern world. The salve of psychology is oft applied — the perpetrators are invariably “loners”, “abused”, “neglected”, “rejected”, “oppressed”, or “victimized” — but the hatred which spawns such unspeakable actions cannot be so easily trivialized or dismissed. It rises up like a hideous ogre, demanding acknowledgment and rebuke — and yet we, in response, simply slap our banal therapeutic band-aids on while frantically averting our eyes to the never-ending distractions which numb the inner terror and allow us to move on, undisturbed, our materialistic narrative intact, unperturbed, and unchallenged.

But evil cannot be so easily confined to the therapist’s couch. Our shallow rationalism shoves evil into the overstuffed closet of the therapeutic, where irrationality, mental illness, and all forms of perplexing puzzles are placed, quickly bolting the door before it can escape. Yet evil is in its own way coldly rational, progressive, efficient: the years of planning behind a Columbine; the detailed protocols and meticulous records of Nazi medical experiments; the systematic efficiency of the Holocaust; the careful coordination of a Beslan. All these display, neither mental instability nor unhinged psychosis, but rather highly rational, intelligent, goal-directed purpose. If anything, evil is often more creative, more ingenious, more well-organized and executed than the pursuit of good. In the hard calculus of rational materialism, there is unspoken contempt for the foolishness of caring for the weak, protecting the vulnerable, elevating the dignity of the imperfect, nurturing the neglected.

When we envision evil, we evoke the ghastly: the school massacre, the genocide, the imprisonment and torture of political prisoners, the rape and abuse of children. But though we long to sequester our discomfort in the realm of the rare and horrible, evil will not be thus constrained. It is alive and well in the corporate boardroom, in the street gang, on the drug dealer’s corner, in the steamy affair which destroys a family. It reaches into every corner of our lives — though we struggle to deny and rationalize the monster as it draws nigh to our souls. Indeed, it dwells quite close to home, in the dark rooms of the mind, the dank cellars of the soul, in whispered desires and demons in the depths of the spirit. The newspaper headlines are but harbingers of the heart; what horrifies without dwells within, though hidden deep beneath denial and jaded self-justification. We are what we fear — and we tremble to acknowledge it.

Yet evil, for all its pervasiveness, does not stand alone as a distinct entity. Like one hand clapping, it is meaningless except in the context of a moral framework, a system of absolutes against which it is measured and found wanting. There can be no “evil” where there is no “good.” Yet our secular age ridicules such a position, rejecting the universal for the relative — we determine our own standards of good and evil, in harmony with our individual and cultural narrative, where the notion of truth is nothing more than an instrument of and a means to power. And thus we have no reference by which to comprehend and measure the phenomenon of evil. We know it when we see it — at least in its more egregious and hideous forms — yet have an inadequate and conflicted worldview with which to grasp it. Our evolutionary mindset should provide some cold comfort, as the prime directive of survival of the fittest predicts the destruction of the weak and the triumph of the strong — yet in our heart of hearts we know this to be foolish, and frightening, and fraught with incongruity — for we know we too are among the weak. The resulting cognitive dissonance leads to a pitiful and wholly inadequate response to the horrors which confront us almost daily. When a Columbine occurs, we immediately call in the counselors — when we should be crying out for the priests.

Our materialism and technology, and the secular relativism they have spawned, have given rise to the delusion that we may control the metaphysical just as we control the physical, through science and technology. Hence we each determine our own morality, deciding for ourselves what is right and wrong — a calculus which always favors ourselves over others. Yet in a reality based on transcendent absolutes, the consequences of their violation — evil — are just as inviolable as the laws of physics. We hope to bend the metaphysical to our wants and desires — and the results are entirely predictable. When evil results, we resort to the only tools in our arsenal: education, knowledge, psychology, sociology. Their inevitable failure at resolving the catastrophe only deepens the dilemma. Our cultural witch doctors dance and cant, shaking their shaman wands in fevered frenzy, hoping to drive off the demons with the magical sayings and sacred books of science and sociology. Yet the evil persists, empowered and enlarged by our enfeebled response.

C.S. Lewis, writing in The Abolition of Man, finds in our materialistic scientific mindset much of the magic of old:

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious…

Evil is indeed real, and growing, and we are poorly equipped to grasp or grapple with it. It is a greedy demon whose goal is destruction and whose power is immense. We would be wise to seek the proper antidote lest its poison destroy us all. Our rare glimpses into the heart of darkness, as Roger L. Simon experienced, are a wake-up call we ignore at our peril.

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28 thoughts on “The Epiphany of Evil

  1. The good and evil of all institutions of the West are not separable from Christianity. As the dominant faith of Western culture, there really isn’t a corner of science, government, art, or literature that is not suffused with it. This makes it difficult to assign credit or blame for anything in our common history. Astronomy, the Inquisition, slavery, representative government, migration, prosperity, technology – all of these have Christian fingerprints.

    There is a significant Jewish contribution to all this despite their small numbers. Teasing that out is also difficult, as they operated in a Christian culture, and many of their contributions were by secular Jews (Spinoza, Marx, Freud). Still, it doesn’t take much knowledge of history to see that their contributions were disproportionately high.

    This is a bland generality, perhaps, but a caution that needs to be inserted in any historical discussion of Christianity. We may try and paint all the good as specifically Christian, or we may slant the news the other way and trace all evils back to the church. Either way we are pretty much picking and choosing our data to support our claim.

    This is a much more intelligent and gracious discussion than what is happening over at my site, BTW. Thanks.

    John, I certainly know Christians who fit the complaint you laid down, but I get a queasy feeling that you are lumping those who disagree with you in an oversimplified category. I am certainly quite grateful that George Bush was president rather than the alternatives. Whether that was a divine providence seems a large claim, difficult to support – but also difficult to attack for the same reasons. As to torture, in current political discussion it seems to be becoming an emotive rather than clarifying word. I have no expert opinion on what crosses lines and what doesn’t, despite having read many opinions. We come here to the same wall found in the original post and the earliest comments. There seem to be some things, even some people, who are a great and intense evil. How do we, who have at least some evil dividing our hearts, make decisions and deal with injustice?

  2. …I get a queasy feeling that you are lumping those who disagree with you in an oversimplified category.

    I suppose that calls for some kind of response.

    After sleeping on it I have decided you are correct. Aside from the tautology that all who disagree with me are, in fact, that subset of people who “disagree with me” I admit to a certain character stain causing me to project unfair, even mean and unjustified conclusions on other people, not evidence-based other than they may have said or done something that pushes one of my several buttons.

    We all know personally (and are quick to self-forgive) about flashes of road rage, or misjudgments about new neighbors until we learn that just because they have a dog that poops in our yard they really aren’t bad people.

    But I sense that’s not the kind of “oversimplified” that was meant. And I recognize that at a deeper level it holds true as well. I plead guilty to looking at whole congregations and assemblies cheering and applauding, concluding unfairly I’m sure, that they ALL are in agreement about that ovation. (Notre Dame last week?) I tend to forget that in similar circumstances I myself have joined a standing ovation, not because I was moved, but because I lacked the courage to remain seated. That’s what Pogo meant when he said “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

    So don’t feel “queasy.” When I think about how often I disagree with myself it makes me queasy as well.

    When I read the word “liberal” used as an expletive (as in “…given up on my liberal friends…”) I remind myself that used in that manner it was not meant to malign me as an individual, just as when I use a generalization not intended for all particular cases I don’t aim literally to include everyone. So if I inadvertently hit a nerve, I’m sorry.

    And that is not meant as a rhetorical apology. I really do believe that we can “disagree without being disagreeable.” We owe it to ourselves and the next generations not to do otherwise.

  3. It’s not just your prickly relatives. It’s probably all of us. “Liberal” is the new “Nigger.” When I use it, it’s okay, but when a non-liberals use it there is no way they can feel how it sounds. I think it’s the result of three or four decades of getting beat up. (Yes, that includes the Clintons who, probably for political survival, got all sotto voce about liberal values when push came to shove.) Occasionally I even see liberal/progressive writers make oblique affectionate reference to themselves and their buddies as “dirty fuckin’ hippies.”I rarely use the word progressive because it strikes me as a cop-out. For those of us unreconstructed old relics of the Sixties for whom “liberal” was a compliment, “progressive” comes across as too apologetic.

    All that said, my way through the mess is to avoid using political taxonomy labels as little as possible… unless I’m trying to underscore a point or being outright snarky, in which case my meaning and inference should be unmistakable. That may be my brand of your “forceful but affectionate” with the affectionate part something like the silent letter in ptomaine.

    Readers who are still with us may think the comment thread is now drifting waaay off the mark. We’re supposed to be discussing evil in its most toxic forms and seem to have gone off task. I suggest otherwise. By seeking to understand one another at the micro level we form a basis for understanding at the macro level. That was one reason for my early enthusiasm for No-drama Obama who seems to enjoy testing his calmness by walking into one lions den after another.

    Disclaimer: I don’t want that remark to be misinterpreted to suggest we can discuss our way to peace in a world riddled by conflict between true evil and its victims. I am suggesting, however, that we tend to jump to the putative extremes of conflicts before seeking alternatives that may avert or ameliorate those extremes.

    **========**

    For me this is a Memorial Day weekend pleasure, taking part in a satisfying conversation with intelligent people. There may only be two or three of us, but that is more than I usually find. I’m gonna have to add your site to my aggregator.

  4. Ah, the political terminology. Nothing is so guarranteed to raise hackles these days.

    I identify myself as a small “l” libertarian. And no, I don’t want to fight over how many such it takes to screw in a light bulb, thank you very much!

    Recently, in a group of newly awakened patriots, I suggested that using the term “conservative” three times in the mission statement was only going to be divisive and that I can, and do, argue that the values we are talking about are American. My proposal technically won the vote, but succeeded only in dividing the group nearly in half, and thus I withdrew it.
    I was then corned by a very passionate conservative who wanted to argue that I am “really” a conservative, which reminded me very much of the liberal (sorry–there’s that word!) Catholics who argue that Jews are “really” Christians by another name. Ugh.

    I do not like the left-right spectrum, either, as it is descriptive of the French Revolution (very bloody, that) and not so much of the United States.

    The word progressive very much describes the political and intellectual roots of the current Democratic leadership, although I seriously doubt that most people who claim the term really know the ideas it represented 100 years ago. They might want to read up on Woodrow Wilson and his version of the Alien and Sedition Acts, as well as the Eugenics movement before they apply the term to themselves.

    And back to the term liberal, it mean(s)(t) something very different in Europe than it has come to mean in the United States. Our founders would have considered themselves liberal, but the current liberal Democrats have a very different idea about what it means than they did.

    I guess the best thing to do is apply such labels sparingly, and to define terms, thus leaving room for people to determine what is meant in the discussion.

    Oh! I almost forgot: the answer is none. In a libertarian society, all lightbulbs would take responsibility for themselves. (It’s a joke we tell on ourselves. You can laugh without being arrested by the PC police!).

  5. You are right, of course, that the labels often obscure rather than explicate meaning. Ironically, however, I find that those who advocate dropping them usually fall into two categories: libertarians who want the statist/autonomy divide to be more in the public consciousness, and the fuzzier type of liberal who seizes on the occasional contradiction in an effort to avoid all clarity. John seems to fit neither category, so I will follow with attention.

    What, then, do I call one who believes that government management of say, an economy is less dangerous (or more equitable) than a free market? This root idea is behind much environmentalism, education funding, and health-insurance advocacy as well. In theology, “liberal” once meant “not literalist,” but now carries much of the political and social meaning instead.

    You are free to rephrase or reconstruct that difference I am describing. There are other philosophical divides as well. But they do tend to congregate and rather cry out for a label in order to discuss the larger ideas beneath rather than the specifics of this legislation or that. There seem to be foundational assumptions that are different.

    Interesting that you should perceive liberals as being beat up, as my experience moves in the opposite direction. I was a mild socialist in the 60’s and 70’s – certainly and proudly a liberal – who left that tribe because of my growing discomfort with the way they privately, and then more publicly, referred to their political opponents. Because I an a social worker, and thus assumed to be fairly left-of-center in all my work contacts, I can assure you that jaw-dropping insulting references are still quite common among social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and the like, at least in New England. They don’t realise I am in the category they are disdaining, and so speak freely.

    I am only partly at home among conservatives and libertarians and refer to myself as Postliberal.

  6. Actually, I was talking over my shoulder to you Elisheva when I was writing to John. And I suppose talking over my shoulder to him now. Plus whoever else is left, this late in the thread.

    I am the one of the Wise Men of Chelm, perhaps. Certainly a Judeophilic Gentile. Perhaps it was because I was in fast-track classes, and many of my friends were thus Jewish…or because I fell in love with Rabbi Handler’s daughter in 5th grade (I wonder what happened to her?) Not many gentiles have their own afikomen bag.

    I loved the Sowell book you referenced. In political and social matters, I try to scrape down to the underlying principles people are operating from. Most folks don’t know what their real theories and motivations actually are, and avoid thinking about it. They have impressions of what would be kind or just, but don’t think through the consequences. This often leads to greater unkindness and injustices, which they don’t feel responsible for, because they didn’t mean it.

    I have more to write, but we must be off to the cemetery presently. Please come over and read my post about Monsieur Chouchani.

  7. Brilliant post. I read M. Scott Peck’s old book “The People of the Lie” over the weekend and had a very similar response.

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