Touching Evil

Douglas A. Blackmon is making the rounds with his book Slavery by Any Other Name and if one takes the time to hear him, one will undoubtedly have much to ponder. What stirred me after I heard him talk was not so much the suffering of African Americans in post Civil War United States because I’ve read many books about that subject–though I must admit it is not the kind of suffering one can easily dismiss– what gnawed at me as it has so many times before was how could someone inflict such harm, willfully, deliberately, repeatedly? How can one flaunt the absence of decency, morals, ethics, principles? How can one use, exploit, beat, imprison, mistreat, flog, deceive, torture another and do it, not in whatever small measure the people around us may sometimes do, but on such a large scale. How could one own another? I read this morning about sugar cane workers in Brazil who work up to 12 hours a day in the back breaking cutting down of sugar canes 6 or 7 days a week. I could not do that to another human being. The people I am close to could not either. And yet, history is filled with people who committed atrocities, from the Inquisition to the Holocaust to mention but two. And what of people who sexually molest young children?
Are we all capable of malevolence? Studies say most of us are. What is it in us that makes us so blind to others, to their suffering, to the consequences of inflicting pain? New research shows that during WW II ordinary Germans helped the Nazis and engaged in committing horrors.
We tend to focus on the results of perpetrators’ actions and on the suffering they cause perhaps at the expense of not sufficiently focusing on those who are responsible, the perpetrators themselves. We can be very judgmental about those who commit ordinary crimes, pass laws that are punitive and unforgiving. Yet so much of these horrors are not committed by criminals but by people much like you and me. Could we not learn to recognize them, to figure out what it is about them that lies behind their odious acts? Such closeness would be unsavory, like really touching evil. But I wonder if touching evil isn’t in order not only to better understand what makes human so depraved, but also help us to stem the smallness impulse from within us, and make it that much harder to engage in the worst of human behavior?