Sin, Evil, Inhumanity or The Argument from Evil
James Waller on Civilization said...
"Ordinary People, Extraordinary Evil", Salon.com (August 2002).
In Rwanda and the Balkans, neighbors often killed neighbors. How did they turn on people they'd known all their lives? And in the Holocaust you had incidences of this, too — I'm thinking of Jan Gross' book, entitled "Neighbors," about a small village in Poland named Jedwabne where the Catholic half of the village killed the Jewish half simply because they were given permission to do so. You realize how thin this veneer of civilization is that we put up. We say we live as neighbors and in a community, but when something happens structurally that says now you have permission to persecute, to take from, to even kill people that you've lived with for years, the relative ease with which people can do that is incredible.
"Ordinary People, Extraordinary Evil", Salon.com (August 2002).
My own pessimism comes more from understanding human nature and the relative ease with which ordinary people can come to commit extraordinary evil. Until we fully understand and appreciate that, we're kind of at a loss to try and stop it. It seems to me that some of our discussion still revolves around the idea that perpetrators of genocide are very much on the fringe, and that there aren't a lot of these people. But when we recognize how relatively easy it is for ordinary people to become involved in this, that just takes the discussion to a different place... It's easier for me to sleep at night if I think that perpetrators of genocide and mass killing are lunatics or insane or only found in cultures like Germany. I don't blame people for jumping to those explanations. But for me it begins with the issue of numbers. We know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, but very seldom do we step back and ask the question: How many people does it take to kill 6 million people? We know that 800,000 Rwandans died in 100 days, but again, how many people does it take to kill 800,000 people? If you want to say that the only people who do this are lunatics or insecure, then I just don't know if you can round up that many people like that in a given society to commit the scale of atrocity that we see in genocide. You simply can't rely on the fringes of society to do that. A lot of ordinary people are going to have to be recruited into that effort as well.
"The Browning of America", an Interview with Richard Rodriquez, (Salon.com)
This lack of a sense of history has allowed us a kind of romance with race and ethnicity that is fanciful. I did a documentary some years ago about America and teenagers and the past and all these kids who were announcing themselves as wanting to recover their history, as though it was some reassurance, when everything I've ever read about American history is an embarrassment. It's filled with tragedies of all kinds. The notion that we would study history in order to feel better about ourselves is just ludicrous. But we have this romantic sense because we know it so little, our past really seems noble. I don't look to Aztec Mexico for any reassurance about my identity. I'm aware that Aztec Mexico was a decadent society; its bloodlust was so extreme that its ultimate sexual energy was its pursuit of death. There's nothing in that history for me that leads me to the romantic calendars that you see in Mexican restaurants with the Aztec, almost naked with the feathers coming out of his head, and the Aztec princess at his knees. Nothing of that is convincing to me. History is a terrible, terrible burden which we need to confront, but I don't think the search for authenticity begins there.
"Biology & Ideology: Do the Muslims love their children, too?" in National Review (March 18, 2002).
Noting that we're all human beings can be worthwhile, but it can also be a verbal white flag for abject moral surrender. Put another way: All the great political and moral conflicts have been between human beings. To date, civilization's greatest battles — rhetorical or otherwise — have not been with Styrofoam, dog hair, gerbils, or toe jam. Nazis are human beings. Murderers and pedophiles are human beings. To say that humanity somehow exonerates rather than confers accountability is to say that humanity is in fact meaningless. Joe Blow killed a child? Well, he's just a human being — cut him some slack. Sure, Jack the Ripper was a rough chap, but he was a carbon-based life form.
"My name is George, and I'm an alcoholic", Salon.com (July 26, 2001).
It's that experience of utter hopelessness, or moments of clarity, or hitting bottom, at which some sufferers typically call out to a higher power for help and others seek the aid of psychiatrists, healers and scientists. The common paradox in all these experiences is that personal powerlessness is twinned with personal responsibility: You suddenly realize that while no one can cure you, neither can you cure yourself on your own. You need God, or friends, or an institution, or a belief system, or something — anything — not yourself. And thus begins, in myriad forms, the archetypal untangling of epistemological knots that results, ultimately, in an unaddicted ego that knows it is both profoundly free and profoundly interdependent. And that's the basis of a healthy society. For that reason, many recovered addicts view with suspicion systems of government aid that seem to prolong dependency and/or to shield sufferers from the fundamental hopelessness of their situation. Thus we would expect Bush, not just as a political conservative, but as somebody who's experienced deep hopelessness, aloneness in the universe and the need for God, to view welfare and other government attempts to eliminate suffering as simply, and wrongly, shielding people from their true problems, the recognition of which alone could catalyze deep change.
"Why Do I Do It?'", Brill's Content (December, 2000)
I have lost many friends, and I've seen many more wounded — by snipers, by mortar shells, by land mines, and by crazed, Kalashnikov-wielding druggies at checkpoints. It has occurred to me that I have spent almost every working day of the past ten years living in a state of repressed fear... And then there's the nightmare of what we see: in Rwanda, piles of bodies being lifted by bulldozers after a genocide and dumped into mass graves — and the toughest of soldiers, supervising this, in tears. In Bosnia, little children being shot in the head. In Somalia and Ethiopia, the walking skeletons heralding those terrible famines. I remember once doing a live shot from a so-called famine camp in Somalia, in which I showed a man, told his story, and explained how ill he was. I suddenly realized that he was dying at that very moment. And I didn't know what to do â€” I didn't know how to move the camera away, how not to sully what was happening in real life. These images and these sounds will never leave me.
All Too Human (Back Bay Books: 2000)
Because I believe in original sin, because I know that I'm capable of craving a cold beer in a village of starving kids, because I know that selfishness vies for space in our hearts with compassion, I believe we need government. A government that forces us to care about the common good even when we don't feel like it, a government that helps channel our better instincts and check our bad ones. I don't think government is good, just necessary.
The LA Times (December 1, 1999).
After years spent studying the world's great philosophers and writers, of poring over the Bible, Talmud, Torah and other ancient texts, of discussions with inspired social and religious leaders, [Eli] Wiesel still has no answer to the question of what makes people good or evil. "I can give all the usual answers — education, home, parents, peer pressure. But these are just factors. The mystery of why people become good or evil is still just that — a mystery." But he has thought of one "rational approach" to ensuring more goodness in humanity. It is respect. "If I respect The Other for whatever The Other is, and The Other respects me for whatever I am, then there can be understanding and even great friendship between all people."
The Brothers K (Bantam Books: July 1996), p. 529.
Window down, transmission in neutral, he was gliding along, exhausted, under stars and sinking moon, driving at swimming speed, otter speed, watching the same moon-silvered riffles and silent glides she'd navigated moments before. And when he pictured again the way she'd watched him — one small, rounded ear up, listening to his babble, the other ear down, listening to the world beneath the asphalt, crushed and alive, two worlds at once — it touched something in him, unlocked something, and he felt himself fall through a kind of false bottom, felt he was driving now, down, into a vast, dark pool. A pool of sorrows, it seemed at first. And not just his own, not just crushed otters and lost Tashas. The stuff of small and large losses, and of recent and ancient ones — poxed kakiutl and napalmed Asians, leveled cities and leveled minds, lost tribes and understandings, broken bridges between worlds — it was all somehow suspended here. Immense sadness on all sides, yet immense depth -- there was room down here for all of it. And in his exhaustion he didn't panic, didn't try to escape, didn't close his mind around any one hurt. He just kept easing the Olds down through it all, thrashing on a gurney, Natasha laughing in a cloudburst, the one good paw scrabbling at the road. No matter how much he saw, more kept coming. Sorrows were endless; he'd always known this. But so, he discovers as he kept sinking and sinking, was the spaciousness of this great black pool.
River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (Basic Books: 1995), p. 133.
The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousand of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so... In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.