Monday, August 03, 2009

Explaining Evil

Thanks to Norm for this:

Over at Mick Hartley's invaluable site, we are directed to a report by Adam Hochschild on the Congo that details some of the nightmarish horrors which have been inflicted on the helpless inhabitants of that unhappy country. Hochschild asks, among other things, how it can be that some of the warm and friendly and helpful people that he met there were also rapists, torturers, and murderers; and he offers an answer:

What turns such people into rapists, sadists, killers? Greed, fear, demagogic leaders and their claim that such violence is necessary for self-defense, seeing everyone around you doing the same thing - and the fact that the rest of the world pays tragically little attention to one of the great humanitarian catastrophes of our time.

No doubt all these things are true; such factors do contribute to the enactment of evil. But there's an explanatory gap between the causal factors cited (greed, fear, and the rest) and the horror of what's done. How does greed – the desire to get more and more good things for oneself – or fear – the worry that one may be harmed – lead a warm and friendly and helpful person to eviscerate and dismember a man, force his wife to collect up the scattered body parts, and rape her on top of them? How is it supposed to work, this claim that the sight of other people acting out our worst nightmares turns ordinary men into monsters ready to do such things themselves? The causes on offer seem too ordinary, too everyday, too small, to adequately account for the barely believable enormities to which they lead. This excess, this overflowing of atrocity, this leap from mundane cause to inventively hideous effect, is what's in need of explanation - an explanation which by and large we entirely lack. (Eve Garrard)

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