The Faces of Evil

Nothing has bedeviled the human race more than the nature of evil. Organized religion has, mostly, made a cartoon of it, and quite unsuccessfully and destructively warred with nature over it. Secularists have too often dismissed the reality of it, rationalized or pathologized it, pissed on it with irony. Many on the left mocked George W. Bush’s very mockable mumbai-terror1locutions – “evildoers” – and through that mockery implied that evil is only that cartoon concept and not real. Then some of them called Bush evil. The fearfully and frightfully ignorant and malicious on the right today who caricature Barack Obama with every mask of evil that occurs, including prayers that wish him harm, have no sense at all of where they themselves stand in relation to that awful force, but that is part of seductive, self-concealing nature of evil: those who are often think themselves righteous.

For several decades now, the secular particularly were content to consign the problem of evil to Hannah Arendt’s somewhat comforting formulation of its banality. Recently Ron Rosenbaum – reflecting on unhappy revelations about Arendt (oh, how often must it be?) – angrily rejected the long hold on our uncritical imaginations of a notion he finds too neat and demonstrably untrue. I mostly agree with him, though I think too complete a rejection is also too neat. Demonstrably, too, some manifestations of evil are banal.

We have a notion of evil because from very early days human beings have suffered the cruelty of their fellows to which they chose to assign that name. All the rest has been an attempt to comprehend.

In this chilling account from Tunku Varadarajan – writing about tonight’s HBO documentary on last year’s terrorist attack in Mumbai that killed 170 people – we see two of the faces of evil:

This is not a documentary for the young to watch, or even for those adults who crumble easily. How to process the telephone conversation between Wasi and the gunman holed up in Mumbai’s Chabad House, where a few American Jews are held hostage? Wasi says: “As I told you, every person you kill where you are”—referring to the Jewish building—“is worth 50 of the ones killed elsewhere.” Later, as Indian army commandos close in on the building, Wasi, watching the scene on TV in Pakistan, fears that the last surviving gunman there will be taken alive. So he orders him to shoot the last two Jewish hostages forthwith: “Yes, sit them up and shoot them in the back of the head.” The gunman, now weak with hunger and thirst, obliges. We hear a shot. Wasi does, too—he is on the line. What about the second shot, he asks. “I got them both,” he is told, by the gunman.

The terrorists killed 170 people; nine of the 10 terrorists were killed, and one—Ajmal Amir Kasab—was captured alive. Imagine the consternation when he turned out to be a brainwashed tool, a Pakistani peasant with no clear thoughts of his own, a man who was taught that, on being martyred, his body would emanate a sweet scent and his face would begin to glow. After Kasab’s colleagues were killed, the Mumbai police took him to the morgue to see their bodies. “We broke him psychologically,” a senior policeman says. In the morgue, Kasab saw no glowing faces, and detected no sweet scent; all he saw were the mangled, hideous, unheavenly corpses of his fellow terrorists. He knew, then, that “he had been taken for a ride.” In such primitive belief rests the fate of the innocent.

(H/T Jeffrey Goldberg)


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