Evil is real

Evil is real. It has existed throughout history, it pervades every culture, religion and ideology. It exists today. While it defies precise definition, it is clearly recognisable by all of us. We know it because we know ourselves, and we know what we, or the people around us, have the potential to become. We are weak; we draw strength from each other; we are easily swayed by charisma, by strong leadership and by aspirational ideas. We know our own histories, in which ordinary folks have been turned against each other on the basis of an idea which even they do not fully understand. It has always been so and will continue to be so, unless we somehow change the basis of what it means to be human.

We do not yet understand what causes someone to become evil. A loss of empathy, a lack of care for fellow human beings, the broader environment and even oneself is a part of it, but even this is not enough. Indoctrination, an unconscionable abuse of our inherent and important ability to embrace and incorporate stories into our own psychologies, this also plays its part. Our desires and aspirations, so necessary for survival, can become a lust for power, a drive to exploit. And the wish for familiarity has a dark side, when it means we ignore the suffering of others or even wish to harm those who have other ideas than our own.

These are human traits, themselves survival skills honed through millennia. They are why we are here. For anyone to say otherwise is to deny their own humanity. To advise that we should operate like this isn’t the case, is at best going to result in short term consequences which may exacerbate, rather than resolve. But to act like it is true does not mean to appease, to be ‘moderate’, to be wooly-minded. For evil is real. It acts like a cancer across the organism we call society, and it will continue to grow unless it is tackled.

As we look to respond to evil however, we need to recognise its causes. While it may be possible for people to be born evil, in general the contexts within which people grow offer a clearer explanation of their behaviours. Those in more prosperous, inclusive environments, in which they have more freedom to act and be themselves, in which they are accepted rather than disenfranchised, are less likely to conduct school shootings or suicide bombings. “Why did they,” we ask, without waiting to hear the answers, preferring our own, generalised perspectives and agendas. “Because America,” we say. “Because Islam.”

And yes, we need to tackle these causes. Not to appease or to show weakness, but because they are the causes. It is going to take tens, maybe hundreds of years — we are still at the beginning of the process of creating a globally fair and just society, and there remains an unfathomable amount of work still to be done. But this is the journey we are on, away from disease and child mortality, away from poverty and towards peace and acknowledgement of basic human rights. We will not get there overnight but there is plenty of reason to be positive and optimistic.

Meanwhile, we also have to tackle the symptoms. When evil emerges, whatever its complex web of causes, it needs to be dealt with. We cannot hope to get healthier as a society if we allow hate, wanton destruction and murder to go unchecked. We owe it to the victims, to their families that we do not stand by and say, “Sorry, there was nothing we could do.” We can, and should condemn evil, wherever it manifests itself; we can, and should protect innocents against evil actions, whatever rhetorical framework is used to justify the motives. And we should hold the perpetrators to account, unstintingly and without compromise.

But in doing so, we must also remember that every human is both consequence and cause. Hate begets hate; anger begets anger; resentment and powerlessness cause a righteous hunger for power which corrupts, which has the potential to recreate the exact conditions, only for them to be imposed on others. By slaying the monster we risk becoming monsters ourselves, as so many of our stories tell us, not to distract and entertain but to repeat an ancient lesson that otherwise we find too easy to forget and ignore.

We all have a choice. Love is not the answer, not by itself. But a decision taken without love plays into the hands of those who, whatever their backgrounds and whatever their justification, would see the destruction of all that we hold dear. From love we find strength, we find understanding, we find community, we find acceptance of difference, we find similarities that bind us more tightly than any ideology. A society build on love is not weak; rather it is strong, forthright, able to respond to harrowing circumstances, united against the only thing any of us have really to fear. The ultimate enemy is not ‘them’, it lies within each and every one of us. We all know this to be true. And we should do everything in our power to overcome it.

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