In Order To Fight Evil, One Must Recognize It

A few years ago there was a particularly horrifying kitten-burning incident involving a barbecue grill and, astonishingly, a video camera. That sordid episode took place far from the place where I work, yet the paper’s editorial board nonetheless felt compelled to editorialize on the subject. They were, happily, against it. Unambiguously so. It’s one of the very few instances I recall when that timidly Broderian bunch took an unambiguous stance without their habitual on-the-other-hand qualifications.

I agreed with that stance, of course. Who doesn’t? But despite agreeing with the side they took, I couldn’t help but be amused by the editorial’s inordinately proud pose of courageous truth-telling. The lowest common denominator of minimal morality was being held up as though it were a prophetic example of speaking truth to power.

That same posturing resurfaced in a big way earlier this year when the kitten-burners struck again, much closer to home. A group of disturbed and disturbing children doused a kitten with lighter fluid and set it on fire just a few miles from the paper’s offices.

The paper covered the story, of course, and our readers ate it up.

People loved that story. It became one of the most-read and most-e-mailed stories on our Web site. Online readers left dozens of comments and we got letters to the editor on the subject for months afterward.

Those letters and comments were uniformly and universally opposed to kitten-burning. Opinon on that question was unanimous and vehement.

But here was the weird part: Most of the commenters and letter-writers didn’t seem to notice that they were expressing a unanimous and noncontroversial sentiment. Their comments and letters were contentious and sort of aggressively defensive. Or maybe defensively aggressive. They were angry, and that anger didn’t seem to be directed only at the kitten-burners, but also at some larger group of others whom they imagined must condone this sort of thing.

If you jumped into the comments thread and started reading at any random point in the middle, you’d get the impression that the comments immediately preceding must have offered a vigorous defense of kitten-burning. No such comments offering any such defense existed, and yet reader after reader seemed to be responding to or anticipating this phantom kitten-burning advocacy group.

One came away from that comment thread with the unsurprising but reassuring sense that the good people reading the paper’s Web site did not approve of burning kittens alive. Kitten-burning, they all insisted, was just plain wrong.

But one also came away from reading that thread with the sense that people seemed to think this ultra-minimal moral stance made them exceptional and exceptionally righteous. Like the earlier editorial writers, they seemed to think they were exhibiting courage by taking a bold position on a matter of great controversy. Whatever comfort might be gleaned from the reaffirmation that most people were right about this non-issue issue was overshadowed by the discomfiting realization that so many people also seemed to want or need most others to be wrong. – Slacktivist, quoted by me (due to link rot to the original), “Moral Indignation”, What’s Left In The Church, May 8, 2010

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Before I take a deep breath and forge ahead, I think it’s important to make clear what I’m talking about when I use words such as “horrific”, “terrifying”, and, of course, “evil”.  A few years ago, in a discussion of what was then a popular idea – “agnotology” – I came across the above post from Slacktivist, a post that has somehow disappeared from the one place that is supposed to be eternal.  Luckily, I copied and pasted it in full on to a post of my own.  My point at the time is the same as my point now.  Sitting around and calling out evil is, by and large (as with so much else on the Internet) a game.  It takes no moral courage at all to denounce kitten-burning, or mass beheadings, or the aerial bombardment of innocent civilians.  These are, to be sure, “evil”.  They are not, however difficult to discern.  All too often, however, folks on the Internet get sucked in to what I call “the Kitten-Burning Trap”: Others insist that unless a particular individual denounce obvious evil, they are therefore morally complicit in that very evil.  This game is, sad to say, far too easy for far too many.  Standing atop the charred carcasses of kittens and declaring one’s moral superiority is laughable, to say the least.  Demanding others do the same or be considered complicit in such evil is absurd.  Yet, that is so much of the moral discourse on the Internet – absurd claims piled upon even more absurd demands, with far too few considering that real evil, the truly horrible, is out there, nearly unrecognizable in its cunning, masked all too often in the faces of the everyday.

No One Would Imagine This Smiling, Good Looking Young Man Had A Heart Of Horror

No One Would Imagine This Smiling, Good Looking Young Man Had A Heart Of Horror

That there is Ted Bundy.  A sexual psychopath, Bundy murdered without remorse in a multi-state killing spree that took the lives of hundreds of young women.  He would lure the victims, often wearing a cast on his arm, to help him put something in his van (the MO was borrowed for The Silence Of The Lambs).  He would beat them in to unconsciousness with his cast.  Once in the van, he would rape them, then strangle them.  Often, he would rape their corpses.  He was also a biter, which was his undoing.  A cast of his bite marks on one of his victims in Florida clinched his conviction and execution.

The thing is, just looking at Bundy, would any of you think he was the embodiment of a certain kind of evil?  Filled with rage at women, behind that handsome bonhomie lay a remorseless killer who eluded the police for years.  His ability to blend in to any crowd of the beautiful up-and-comers (and Bundy was sought after in his native Washington State to run as a Republican for public office) was not just part of his honey-trap for his victims.  It was also the best disguise a person with so much blood and death on his hands could have.  After all, don’t we tend to call such persons “monsters” and “inhuman”?  There’s nothing monstrous about Bundy at all, at least at a glance.  He is, in many ways, the epitome of a kind of successful, good-looking human being.  Which is precisely why recognizing evil is so much more than denouncing kitten-burning, or terrorist bombings, or even genocide.  We must be able to see and understand that underneath even the most beautiful face might lie a mind so filled with rage that destruction of other life, destruction that can only be ended in incarceration and death, is a hunger that can never be satisfied.

The All-Too-Common Image Of The Demonic

The All-Too-Common Image Of The Demonic

This photo is what far too many picture when the word “demon” is used.  Indeed, it’s from a television program, Millennium, from the 1990’s, which explored matters of good and evil in their extremities.  The producers, in one episode, used a split-second siting of this image as a cheap jump-scare that, let me just admit it right here, is still hard for me to watch and still stands, for me, as one of the most horrific moments I’ve ever seen on network television.  Yet, if evil ran around this world looking like this all the time, what would be the point of struggling with it?  If it were so easy to spot the demonic even in ourselves because this would be the image staring back at us from mirrors and our mind’s eye, spiritual disciplines would far more resemble exorcisms than struggles within ourselves among all the facets of our all-too-complicated, never stagnant selves.  While I was, and continued to be, frightened by the use of this image, I do not accept this as “evil”.  Far from it, particularly in an age when evil has become so intertwined not only in the lives of individuals but in our social lives as well.

When Hannah Arendt wrote of “the banality of evil” at the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem, she was not – at least as I think far too many people understand her meaning – downplaying evil in the modern world.  On the contrary, I believe she was expressing a peculiar and particular kind of horror.  The West, in its Weberian bureaucratic facelessness had, in the Third Reich, created a mask for evil so common, ordinary, and everyday that it might well be nigh on impossible for ordinary people to see the horrors beneath the normal goings-on of the bureaucratic state.  Arendt wasn’t diminishing evil; she was, rather, casting a warning to moral theorists everywhere to be on the lookout for the common, the regular, for behind that very banality could lie horrors that are, to this day, unimaginable.  Over a half-century later, we rest ourselves far too comfortably in our ability to recognize and call evil by its name.

I’m a fan of horror films.  There’s a certain satisfaction in being frightened, jumping when a combination of sound and light and dark combine, and the unknown is finally unmasked for what it is.  Yet, each time that unmasking occurs, I find myself disappointed.  “This is it?” I think.  An evil child, perhaps, or the revenant of some old witch seeking to be reborn in our time through the ritual sacrifice, usually of young people doing what they shouldn’t (which, let’s face it, is what young people do; more than one commentator on the Friday the 13th franchise has noted the essentially high moral tone of at least the early films: don’t sneak off and have sex or the bogeyman will kill you).   Even if it’s a move involving demonic possession – The Ritual, say, or The Devil Inside – I can’t help but wonder how the demons involved got such a crappy job.  Possess the body of a person to do . . . what, exactly?  Kill other people?  We are quite capable of doing that on our own, thank you very much.  Twist our bodies in to strange shapes?  Toward what purpose?  I don’t get the whole demonic possession thing.  You want to scare me, demons, possess the CEOs of a few of our larger corporations.  I’m sure you’d like to possess some members of Congress, but are expelled by the sheer stupidity of those willing to go along with it.

In a world in which evil is so complex and difficult to see, let alone name for what it really is, it is just too easy to fall in to the Kitten-Burning Trap.  In a world losing faith in the churches of our fathers and grandfathers, yet still surrounded by evil, we want evil to be clear, and the goodness and efficacy of the God of our ancestors to be clear as well.  Lacking any real faith, however, religious figures in such films are too often portrayed as doubters or frauds, their power non-existence in the face of the demonic forces against which they are pitted.  A stock line in so many of these movies, as meaningless as it is cliched, is: “They never teach you what to do when confronted with real evil.”  Except, of course, they do, and we – all of us, all the time, both within our psyches and in the larger world – experience and see all sorts of real evil every single day.  We aren’t lacking the ability to struggle with it and win.

What we lack is the ability to be clear about evil.  Wrapped as it is, not only around and among the other parts of our own lives, but in the world around us, ridding even the smallest bit of it takes not so much faith and strength as discernment, skill, and patience.  The courage, well, that can come from God.  We also need wisdom.  We need eyes to see.  Most of all, we need to beware the all-too-easy traps set for us, to name the most clear instances of evil among and in us and consider ourselves moral persons.  That is, perhaps, the most evil device there is.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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