Wherein lies the source of evil?

By Keith Best

At Christmas time Christians bring themselves closer to their God than at any other time of the year: for them it is a time when God becomes Man as a human being and is at one with humanity so that the artificial separation between humanity and the Creator merges into a single whole. The priest on Christmas Day in her sermon stressed that God is all around us in everything we do and quoted St Augustine who stated that “Without God we cannot; without us God will not”.

Those of religion believe in a Creator who is involved in everyday life and those who have none still believe that there are forces of good and evil that determine our actions. We all can recognise those characteristics within us. Otherwise, how is it possible that those who love their families can then commit atrocities against other human beings, often coincidentally? This dilemma was accentuated for me by an exhibition many years ago of the private photographs of a Nazi death camp officer which showed him playing with his children and having affectionate shots of them with him full of smiles when he came home from work – work which involved the systematic murder of thousands of women and children based simply on their ethnicity. Was this man inherently evil or had circumstances and his own amorality or indoctrination enabled the nascent evil within him to triumph over the good?

In the war film Anzio Robert Mitchum plays a war correspondent who refuses to bear arms until his patrol is virtually wiped out by a couple of Nazi snipers and when his companions are killed one by one he finally seizes a gun and kills the last remaining sniper before throwing away the gun in disgust at what he has done. When strolling later with the US General who has just been relieved of his command the General remarks that it appears that Mitchum has found the answer to his conundrum. “Wars solve nothing” Mitchum tells the General. “History teaches us that; but people kill each other because they like doing it; for one moment when a soldier holds a rifle in his hands and faces the enemy in that one moment he lives more intensely than at any other time.”

I know that we should be wary of extracting apothegms from film scripts even if they are based on fact but sometimes the temptation is too great. In the classic film Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence, a complex character, when asked to return to organise the Arab revolt against the Turks seeks to argue against it because war and killing have changed him. He tells General Allenby of how he had to execute a man and Allenby explains that such things are unpleasant but should not dominate his thoughts. “There is something else” adds Lawrence, “I enjoyed it.” Is he encapsulating the thrill and the power of taking life which may bring further explanation as to why humanity continuously kills itself?

Equally, however, is the subsequent horror, nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder that comes from being involved. In another epic film, Zulu, based on the real action in 1879 when a small group of 150 British troops at Rorke’s Drift held off 4,000 Zulu warriors, at the end of the slaughter one of the two officers, Lt Bromhead, for whom it was his first action, tells Lt Chard how he feels sick “and one other thing. I feel ashamed.”  I was touched by an interview with a young Ukrainian sniper who had been a teacher before being recruited to defend his country who, when asked how many people he had killed, declined to answer stating that he was not proud of what he had done as every time he squeezed the trigger on his rifle he was aware that he was bringing misery to a mother, brother, sister or child. He was aware of the humanity and not clouded by false bravado or sense of revenge that so often accompanies conflict. His is a message for all soldiers.

These are difficult conflicting emotions the nature of which I cannot nor should not try to resolve in this short piece but their analysis is needed to try to ensure that the killing from Cain onwards can be averted in future.

It is a sobering thought that those of us who wish to end war have to contest with the basic human nature of the desire and excitement of killing and propensity for violence. We should not forget (although I have never felt the urge myself) that from time immemorial it has been regarded as sport to kill wildlife often in orgies of mass slaughter. In my own constituency there was a “shoot” for which large numbers of young pheasants were raised so that they could be blasted out of the sky by the wealthy who flew to the occasion in their private jets and paid large sums for the privilege of doing so – the business thrived. For centuries fox-hunting was regarded as an essential part of the British country way of life (now banned) but still had to suffer the description by Oscar Wilde of being “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable!”

The so-called enjoyment of killing is that part of the evil within all that has to be suppressed but which, for some, cannot be. Those of us who are peace activists do neither the cause nor ourselves any favours by burying our heads in the sand on this. If we do not understand the world and humanity as it is then we can hardly claim to hold the key to unlocking a world which governs itself peaceably through the force of law rather than the law of force. The fact remains that violence is in our human and animal genes – more so in the male than the female of the species. We see premature death all around us – not just that perpetrated by human beings – but what divides us from that basic survival of the fittest and luckiest is our ability to reason. If we wish it enough we can circumvent those baser basic instincts, suppress them and ensure that the nobler side prevails.

So how do we approach that daunting task? Being a peace activist is a good beginning but without being so unrealistic in our desires that we are sidelined as dreamers and hopeless optimists. That means recognising that evil, aggression and persecution will continue to exist and that in certain circumstances that will have to be met by strength based on justice and righteousness. Resting on religion may include those who share those beliefs but it may exclude from your reach those whom you wish to heed your words – not everyone believes in Satan and religion can be as divisive as it is cohesive. Far better to examine the flaws in human nature on which there is a wealth of expert written material and aphorisms such as the famous one of Lord Acton, the British historian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Although it is not a decisive factor in humanity’s capacity to wreak abuse on its own species, an expedient that has been used throughout history to make it more palatable to do appalling things to others to try to assuage the feelings of the more squeamish is to make out that those who are the victims are somehow less than human beings – the Third Reich developed this to a fine art by showing films of Jews as rats and interspersing the two, by describing Slavs and others as Untermensch – lower than humanity. It becomes easier to slaughter those whom you regard as different in every respect. It is also manifest in the manner of the slaughter – dropping Zyclon B poison into a gas chamber is easier than placing a bullet in another’s skull (indeed, the Nazi gas chambers were developed not just to increase the killing to an industrial scale but also because the members of the einsatzgruppen death squads were facing increasing mental health deterioration as a result of the more personal killing).

Being an effective peace activist, therefore, is speaking out whenever and wherever discrimination occurs making scapegoats of its victims. We cannot be neutral to the fate of the Rohingya, Uiyghur and many other examples of where harsh treatment is excused on the basis that such people are different or need to be brought within certain cultural norms or are in need of “re-education.”  We should also be mindful that a successful functioning democracy does not rest on winner takes all and that the majority can thoughtlessly impose its will on the minority: it values diversity and protects minorities and seeks to work through consensus. The alternative is bolshevism – the tyranny of the majority, coined by John Stuart Mill in his seminal book “On Liberty.”

In these days of war, push-back from globalisation, rise of narrow nationalism and obsession with self-interest it is easy to lose heart – so a third necessary characteristic for the effective peace activist is perseverance and solidarity. We must not be deterred by the magnitude of the task before us. We should celebrate the formulation, successes and gains in human rights instruments over the last century but not be complacent that we have reached our goal. There is still much to be done in international justice which includes attempting to reverse current trends and combat growing disparities between the fortunate and those not so blessed which leads to social tension and potential conflict. We may not be as numerous or effective or heeded as much as we may wish but our voice needs to be heard above the clamour of discord, buoyed up by the anthropologist Margaret Mead’s words “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

So, finally, we should by now all be aware of the warning signs: the accumulation of power into the hands of a few who then abuse it, denial of basic freedoms, alienation of victims by virtue of certain characteristics and a distancing of atrocities from the bulk of the population, rather like hiding abattoirs from meat-eaters. We need to be balanced – recognising that no philosophy, doctrine or religion has a monopoly of good ideas but that we must learn eclectically and also from history which, although never precisely repeating itself, has a nasty habit of showing us how consistently we go wrong – sadly, usually with the benefit of hindsight. We do not need to be especially insightful to realise that war or violence never provide permanent solutions and that political compromise involves having to relinquish as well as gain something. The dichotomy is that while so many are turning in on themselves, perhaps for reassurance in like-minded prejudice or collective defence, the realisation is now greater than ever that we all impact on each other – the climate change activists have shown us beyond peradventure that so much of what we do without thought of the consequences can have a devastating impact on us and on future generations. Is the instinct for survival so great that we can genuinely turn away from potential Armageddon and beat the swords into ploughshares? That is the challenge for us all and let us make sure that we are leading the way.