FROM ROBERT D. CRANE
Evil in Meta-Historical Perspective
Stating the Problem
Arguably, the “West” has experienced greater evil than any other civilization in human history. This may be why its philosophers and religious leaders have explored the nature, cause, and counters to evil perhaps more assiduously than was necessary in any other civilization.
The most influential event in modern European history was the Shoah or Holocaust in which a materialist ideology demanded the extermination of a religion and of the nation based upon it. What were the dynamics of the eruption of such evil in the modern totalitarian state and what were the spiritual dynamics of resistance against it? And what caused the failure of Jewish politicians to learn any lessons from the Holocaust? Such events and the failure to benefit from them are mysteries of history. Like the mysteries in every branch of science, however, behind every appearance of chaos there is a mysterious order, a covert truth, and a hidden justice. Or is there? Does evil have any meaning in meta-historical perspective?
The past century, now continuing into the Third Millennium, has witnessed what statistically, though perhaps not morally, are even more mind-boggling manifestations or expressions of evil, such as Stalin’s murder of 20,000,000 Ukrainians in the 1920s and Mao Tse Dung’s murder of 50,000,000 Chinese, by conservative estimates, in the 1940s and 1950s. Studies at the Hudson Institute in the 1960s revealed that more people died in state/nation conflicts, considered by Western international law to be internal affairs, in the first twenty years after World War II than died during the War itself. Nowadays, the Neo-Cons in Washington fear that radical Muslims might use weapons of mass destruction to raise human annihilation to new heights.
What do these cataclysms of evil have in common? Perhaps most striking is that they all originated from the pursuit of materialist utopias, sometimes cast for strategic purposes in the garb of religion. More striking is the irony that the Nazi persecution of the Jews, and the relentless expansion of secularist/apocalyptic Zionism at the expense of the Palestinians, and the genocide by Russian fascist inheritors of Soviet Communism against indigenous peoples have resulted from the perversion of authentic and legitimate spiritual dispensations, namely, Judaism and Christianity. And some nihilistic cults among Muslims now threaten to pervert Islam into its opposite as the third of the three great modern polytheisms.
These three so-called “monotheistic and teleological” religions of the West, as distinct from the “cyclical religions” of the East, foresee an eventual utopia on earth in the “end times.” The Jews foresee a messiah, the Christians foresee the return of Jesus as the messiah, and the Muslims foresee the return of a messiah and then of Jesus. They all believe in transcendent reality and that eventually it will become immanent. Christians believe that transcendence and immanence were eternally combined two thousand years ago in the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
The question arises in Western civilization, including Islam, what happens when one abolishes belief in the transcendent, whether de jure as in post-modern thought, or only de facto in the politicalization of Islam as a cover for alienated individuals to express their hatred through nihilistic violence. In Western culture one is left with belief that utopia on earth can come now. It will not come at the behest of God but through the free will of man embodied in a leader who claims to know the laws of history or promises to create them through his own unlimited power. The purpose of man in the new secular dispensation is to conquer the world through man’s rational intellect in order to bring forth heaven on earth.
This is the ultimate polytheism, because it amounts to the worship not only of oneself but of the human species as God. This attractive but potentially most virulent perversion of traditionalist Western thought took form initially in the European Enlightenment, a phenomenon that was previously unknown in human history and was almost the opposite of the classical period of Muslim/Jewish enlightenment in Andalusian Spain.
Although this new paradigm of Western thought triumphed three hundred years ago on the European Continent, the Founders of America borrowed their paradigmatic roots largely from the spiritually-based Scottish Enlightenment. This delayed the onslaught of materialism until about the time of the American Civil War. Until then, virtually no American leaders could even conceive of a world existing without both a divine origin (deism) and continuing divine guidance (theism). Perhaps this fundamentally different origin of democracy in the New World has insulated America from the utopian ideologies and totalitarian manias of materialism at least for awhile. Or has it? Does America itself have meaning in meta-historical perspective? For good? Or for bad?
What is evil? Before we can address the above dynamics of evil, we must first understand the nature of evil, because it has different dimensions. These are considered to range from the external or exoteric, like a tsunami, which, in fact, has nothing to do with evil, all the way to the internal or esoteric dimension captured in the metaphor of the Anti-Christ, known in Islamic thought as the Messiah al Dajjal.
FROM JEREMY HENZELL-THOMAS
This article by Michael Hirsh in The Washington Monthly (Nov 19 2004) is worth reading if you haven’t already done so. http://www.alternet.org/story/20488/
FROM BOB CRANE
Thanks. Michael Hirsh usually has some very insightful analyses. I get his articles from a number of sources via the internet and read every one. The underlying issue here and in most public policy issues is whether there is such a thing as objective truth, objective ways to identify and measure it, and rational and effective ways to translate such wisdom into normative law and justice.
Another related question is whether there is such a thing as objective falsehood and whether there is accountability for translating it into injustice. Is evil endemic in human society, and, if so, what do we do about it, if anything. Professor Robert Shiller of Yale in today’s NYT, “How Wall Street Learns to Look the Other Way,” suggests why Enron was not an anomaly. I agree. At Harvard Law School we had to take a course on legal ethics, but the entire purpose of the course was to teach us how to get away with unethical behavior without being legally liable. Professor Archibald Cox, who later became the Solicitor General of the United States (our Chief Prosecutor), taught us to advise our clients to pay no more than half what they legally owed in taxes, so that the IRS adjuster would be able to claim he had earned his pay by demanding an increase to three-quarters. As a typical Harvard professor, he also said that no-one owes any taxes at all, so one should pay only what the police power of the state can enforce with criminal penalties. This is the positivist definition of law, totally divorced from any concept of right and wrong.
The marvel is that the positivist American legal system produces so much justice despite itself. Or does it? Perhaps we have reached the point where unintentional justice is more than offset by the intentional injustices. I’m sure the quantitative theorists could graph this impressively.
Another good article in the Science Times of today’s NYT is Carey’s “For the Worst of Us, the Diagnosis May be Evil’.” Some professional psychiatrists and social scientists are beginning to argue “that it is time to use the ‘E’ word,” based on a new “depravity index.” It is interesting the way intellectuals have to jump through hoops to arrive at the conclusion that our caveman ancestors took for granted eons ago.
This article refers to evil in terms of transcendent savagery, meaning a high level of cruelty coming from a combination of high levels of psychopathy, sadism, and sanity. A good example is “malignant narcissism, a personality type characterized not only by grandiosity but by fantasies of unlimited power and success, a deep sense of entitlement, and a need for excessive admiration.” The article says that some of the resulting behavior is evidenced in brain abnormalities, but it does not address the “cause and effect” question of whether the evil intentions and actions can produce the physical abnormalities.
This use of the term “evil” in terms of cruelty and found in extremis in “transcendent savages” is an interesting use of the term “evil” as well as an egregiously debauched use of the term “transcendent.” Theologians seem to look at evil as the transposition of good and evil, so that evil is either the absence of good or its opposite. Such deliberate transposition is the definition of Al Dajjal, the Anti-Christ, which we discussed in one of our recent colloquies. This would be my definition of transcendent evil. On the surface this kind of evil has nothing to do with cruelty, but ontologically and epistemologically this axiological inversion is the height of cruelty.
Perhaps I shall add “transcendent savagery” to my list of polytheisms because it raises the concept of materialistic behavior to an ultimate measure of truth, when in fact it has nothing to do with truth. By definition, the “transcendent” savage is sane, so he is not inverting truth and falsehood. The professional psychiatrists that specialize in cruel behavior prefer to use degree of cruelty as the measure of evil, because a higher definition would not be “clinical” or “medical.” This refusal to acknowledge the existence of any absolutes, as required in the theological definition of evil, amounts to the worship of the material world as the ultimate frame of reference to explain human behavior. This would be shirk al khafi or hidden polytheism.
Incidentally, Kabir Helminski sent me a note last week contending that Iblis’ sin was in claiming that he is better than humans, not that he was better than God. But, I would contend that his refusal to acknowledge God’s statement that humans are superior is the equivalent to claiming superiority over God. This was the real sin of Iblis. What do other ‘Arifun say about this?
FROM JEREMY HENZELL-THOMAS
Regarding the sin of Iblis, the Qur’an says that when God asked him what prevented him from prostrating to Adam, he replied “I am better than he. You created me of fire, but you created him of clay” (7:12, 38:76). Rumi suggests that Iblis had only one eye, with which he saw Adam’s clay, lacked another, different kind of eye, to see Adam’s divine spirit.
But, there is a story about the great Sufi al-Junayd’s encounter with Iblis related in Cyril Glasse’s Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam (London: Stacey International, revised edition, 2001) which brings out the layer of meaning to which you point:
“At one period in my life,” said al-Junayd, “I felt a longing to see in vision what Satan was like. And as I stood in the mosque one day, an old man came through the gateway. His face turned towards me; and at the sight of it my heart clenched with horror. He came nearer and I cried out: ‘Who are you? The look of you - the mere thought of you - I cannot bear it!’ ‘I am him you wanted to see.’ ‘The Accursed One!’ I exclaimed. ‘Then answer now my question: why would you not bow down to Adam, for which God cursed you?’ ‘Junayd,’ said he, ‘how could you imagine that I should bow down to any except God?’ This answer startled me. But then a secret voice inside me whispered: Say to him: ‘You’re lying - if you had been an obedient servant you would not have disobeyed His Command.’ And as if he heard the whisper in my heart, the old man cried out: ‘O God! You’ve burnt me!’ And suddenly he vanished.”
Glass, by the way incorrectly refers to Iblis as one of the Angels. He was of course one of the jinn, which is why he was able to disobey God. Had he been an angel he could not have disobeyed. It was his luminous (fiery) nature which drew him towards the angels and caused him to join in their activities, eventually becoming one of a select group of servants on account of his great devotion.
William Chittick points out that the lower human and satanic aspect of the element fire (of which the jinn are created) is “self-assertive arrogance - ‘Me, me, me’. Do your own thing - follow caprice and ignore your God-given intelligence. Fire’s negative nature is nicely summed up in the Quranic word ‘istikbar’ which means to seek greatness, magnificence, or eminence.” The divine name al-mutakabbir (He who is great in Himself’ or The Magnificent’ can only be applied to God, and as a human quality it can only mean “arrogant”.)
To seek magnificence or eminence for oneself (to claim “greatness in the land” like Pharaoh and be appropriately drowned in water as a punishment for this arrogance-28:39-41) is therefore to misappropriate the Name of God. “The angels - they do not claim greatness. They fear their Lord above them, and they do as they are commanded.” (16:49-50). The “malignant narcissim” you mention in your latest email (is this another name for the malignant egophrenia which a recent article circulated by Richard Tarnas has attributed to GW Bush?) is of Iblis, as is solipsism and the growing societal version of autism which increasingly afflicts Western society. “Me. Me, Me!”. How dangerous this narcissism is when it infects a powerful nation!
FROM BOB CRANE
Although I should be doing nothing but writing my books, I have found that one good way of doing the research is to participate in or at least read colloquia that address topics in which I must do the necessary research anyway. This produces much serendipity (this is the word I was looking for in a previous email, not syncronicity - missspelled).
Since the nature of evil has fascinated me since I was a small boy, this might indeed be a good topic for a colloquium. I was raised partly by my paternal great-grandmother, whose native language was Cherokee. I could never understand how my maternal great-grandfather, Judge James Baker, who was president of the railroad that blasted through Cherokee lands in the early 1870s, could treat my great-grandmother’s people as savages fit only to be eliminated from the face of the earth (perhaps along with all the lazy southerners whom the heat of the south had degraded in a just a few generations to something not much better than their slaves). Somehow this seemed to be evil.
My awareness of social and institutional evil was awakened in one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. In 1938, my father took my grandparents (the Cherokee side of the family) and me on a long trip (professors were unemployed during the summers back then) from Indiana to California when the Great Depression was still in full sway and the highways were full of old jalopies carrying large signs on the back reading “California or bust!”
We were sitting along the side of the road one morning in front of a motel waiting for my grandmother to finish packing so we could move on through Missouri (there were only crowded two-lane roads in America back then - no four-lane highways - so 300 miles a day was an accomplishment). A man and his wife and one-year od baby came walking along, the man carrying heavy bags. When they saw us the man asked us to take his baby because they could no longer feed it. His wife had a hernia and could no longer carry anything. He had been fired from his job in a iron mill down in Texas and there was no work anywhere down there, so he had decided to move to Minneapolis where he had heard there might be work. But, his car caught fire and burned up, so he was trying to hitchhike the rest of the way. They had no money and had had no food for a couple of days.
Back then, the safety net that Roosevelt had just started to put in place was overwhelmed by the effects of the pendulum swings that came from the saving graces of the invisible hand that the capitalists said would bring justice from what later was termed the benefits of “creative destruction.” My father taught economics at Harvard, and from upstairs I used to secretly listen in to the discussions with his students late at night in the living room, so even at the age of eight I knew about the great theories of capitalism, socialism, and fascism.
This man and his wife said that they might make it all the way to Minnesota, but their child might not. They did not want any money but just asked my father if he would take their baby. My father went with them to the house next door and the woman there took their baby and promised to take care of it until the man found a job. Later I heard that he eventually did find a job and got his baby back.
At the time though, things looked bleak for him and hundreds of thousands of people like him. My father asked him what he would do if there were no jobs in Minnesota. He promptly replied that he would become a robber and steal food. I was taught that one should never steal, so his situation posed a real dilemma for my young mind. I thought that it was somehow evil for this man and his wife to reach the end of civilized life. It was not his fault. It was not anyone’s fault. So what was the cause of such evil. Charity could save his baby, but no amount of charity would save him and his wife and the vast numbers of people like them desperately migrating all over America looking for work.
That is when I decided that there is such a thing as institutional evil, though I had no name for it then, and that it was useless to rely on personal charity to help others. This is why I question Rumi’s sentence at the end of one of the colloquium’s emails that the ultimate solution to evil is charity. Of course, he is right in the sense that love is needed as a motivation for action to pursue justice, because the alternative will be motivation through hate. But, such love should be directed in community action to change the defective institutions that permit or even cause the suffering that I had just witnessed by the side of the road in Missouri. I also later witnessed a man get into a fight with his wife and throw their small baby into the middle of the highway. We seem to forget what the American people went through in the Great Depression, and fortunately there are not many people still alive who remember it.
This is what Father Feree is talking about in his writing about social justice. Unfortunately, Muslims do not seem to address this issue, except by saying that we need a combination of socialism and capitalism. This would be merely combining the worst of all solutions. If institutional evil is to be addressed, we need a third way. And my view is that Muslims can be leaders in this way. One cannot discuss evil in the modern world without addressing the institutions that lead good people unwillingly and even unknowingly to support social institutions that cause evil.
FROM STEVE NIEMAN
I have enjoyed these colloquies. Thanks you so much. I, too, am fascinated by evil. One element missing from these discussions is the philosophy/religious-influence of the Far East—Zen, Buddhism and my favorite—Taoism, which has been described as “the religion of no religion.”
I have read references to Jesus Christ supposedly visiting there during his time on Earth and being exposed to principles such as wu-wei. I’m not sure about Muhammad, but anybody who lived during those times you would think would have been somehow been affected perhaps subconsciously by the great things happening in China, etc., regarding a cohesive and organic way of embracing life.
I think a lot of our work regarding enhancing social and economic justice can be aided by keeping the thinkings of the Far East in mind. Norm’s wife, Marie, from the brief time I spent with her on a short visit a couple of years ago that I took to DC, personifies this quiet reverence for our natural surroundings and our spiritual relationships to them.
Chinese writing of ideograms is a giant step closer to nature than our alphabetic-linear way of communicating. A picture is so much more powerful conveying meaning because sight can comprehend like seven times faster than sound. The English word wu-wei alphabetizing the ideogram—naturally there’s problems in the translation. Wu-wei perhaps can best be illustrated by the parable of the pine and the willow in heavy snow. The pine branch, being rigid, cracks in the snow. But the willow branch yields to the weight of the snow, and the snow sloughs off. The willow is not limp—but springy.
Wu-wei is thus a lifestyle of one who follows the Tao and is a form of intelligence. If one knows the principles, invisible structures and trendings of human and natural affairs, one will require only a minimum amount of energy dealing with them. This intelligence is not just cerebral. It is the “unconscious” intelligence of the whole mind-brain-body organism.
The ancient philosophy of the Tao predates the West’s alpha-numeric way of thinking and communicating. This is VERY significant, I feel, and can help us preserve our energies and use them the most wisely. If we are quiet observers of how life works around us, we can see the wisdom of “letting go and letting God,” willingly submitting to the skillful and intelligent following of the course, current and the grain that we can behold in wood. Seeing that human life is an integral part of the world process, and not something where we supposedly “stand off” and observe from afar.
This approach to living has made it around the world. When I play golf, I know copy what I heard an old caddy in Scotland do—He indiscriminately yells “Shot!” as he walks around the golf course watching the game. Not “good shot.” (And of course nobody unenlightened says anything about a bad golf shot.) This old caddy instinctively and intelligently is responding to what’s real: In golf and life you can’t have good golf shots without a lot of bad ones.
This is the kind of interaction that I constantly seek to apply in my everyday life. I find a lot of joy in it. Life’s perfect. I try and find my proper place in it.
These discussions are fun. But I know I must allocate some time to then apply what I learn to help change human’s invisible institutions, so they are more Tao-like. They will serve all of humanity better and will help balance the forces of the dark side. Evil is a fact of life. We will never eradicate it. But we can certainly balance it, which is where the sweet spot of life lies~~Steve
FROM RICHARD FOLEY
Steve, thank you for your contribution to this discussion. I am a Christian, yet I consider it part of my spiritual duty to fearlessly open my mind to consideration and contemplation of the beliefs of others. I can never agree that God only desires rote zombies as his adherents. As inefficient, as prone to error as my mind may be, I must use it to seek a closer relationship with my Creator. I understand that the path is narrow and difficult, but I reject the belief that this means an unquestioning obedience carried out in a set of rituals as suggested by some, developed over the centuries, or practiced by billions of people. I accept that there are many mysteries I will never understand, and that words are inadequate tools. In my journey I have acquired an appreciation for tradition and ritual, and even experienced some of the benefits that can be found in their practice, and I do not condemn their adherents. Rather, I have developed some simple rules to assist me. One of the most important for me is to step back from the traps set by those who claim some special authority to interpret or proclaim instructions on the will of God, or a divine appointment of authority. For such as these are the preferred tools of evil. Often these traps become institutions. I am aware that I shall ever be a seeker with bruised feet and bloody knees from taking detours and climbing out of pits, but with a joy filled heart that forgives and accepts me and points me towards hope.
With affection and respect, Richard D. Foley
FROM BOB CRANE
Aha, now perhaps we have a link between Jeremy and Norm, since Norm understands Steve Nieman’s emphasis on the Tao and the wu-wei function of unconscious intelligence, and so, I’m sure, does Jeremy. This opens up a whole universe of meaning introduced in a shelf full of books written by Frithjof Schuon.
The origins of one’s own and others’ perspectives on life has always intrigued me. Two of the most important sources in mine were “chance” meetings with Buddhist monks, one in northern Thailand in 1967 and one in Baca, Colorado, in 1982. In 1967, I made a covert tour of the resistance movements on behalf of Richard Nixon all along the periphery of China from Vietnam to Nepal. At the time the governing paranoia about the “domino effect” of “losing” Vietnam had prompted the U.S. Air Force to advocate bombing all the tribal peoples along the 1000-mile periphery of China, because they allegedly, and in fact were, accepting weapons from the Chinese Communists to wage their national liberation movements, especially in Burma and in Nagaland (where Burma, Tibet, and India intersect). My knowledge of tribal peoples from my own Cherokee background convinced me that these peoples would never join the Communists, since they wanted independence or autonomy from all foreign oppression, especially from China, even though they would accept arms from anybody. They would join the Communists against America only if we would bomb them. Perhaps there is a similar analogy in Iraq today.
As I was flying in a small plane with about fifteen passengers up to Chiengmai in northern Thailand to meet with the head of the Shan autonomy movement in Burma, I was fascinated by the beauty of the clouds through which we were flying. After about half an hour of enjoying the clouds, I suddenly heard a voice from across the aisle call out, “But, why do you want to convert us?” I looked over for the first time and saw an elderly saffron-robed monk. As a gung-ho Roman Catholic, I answered, “Because we have the truth and want to share it with you.” He was silent and then he replied, “How can anyone possess the truth.”
Intellectually I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but I understood it anyway, so I answered, “I don’t know.” He invited me to spend a week under his personal supervision at the biggest Buddhist monastery in the world, where he was the Chief Abbot. Since I was busy fighting national liberation wars, I declined his offer, but, in retrospect, I realized that this was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. Our few sentences, however, had given me a new perspective on reality, or rather it had reawakened the perspective that I already had from my Native American background.
Then, fifteen years later, I participated in a gathering of religious leaders from around the world at the Baca, Colorado, facility of the Aspen Institute, which until the Neo-Cons took over the White House at the turn of new millennium, was the most influential think-tank in the world. I was representing Native American traditions, although I was a covert Muslim. The multi-millionnaire hostess, Annamarie Strong, had undertaken an ambitious project to open monasteries at Baca for all the world religions, since the Native American folklore is that this area in south-central Colorado is where they all intersect.
Mrs. Strong took me aside and said, “Two Buddhist monks from Tibet have just arrived, but they must leave again immediately for a quick visit to Denver, and they have only five minutes before they must leave for the airport. I want you to talk with them.” Like all Buddhist monks are (or are supposed to be), they were most gracious. Since I had no idea how to start a conversation, I said, “I’ve always wanted to know more about Buddhism. Can you explain it to me in five minutes?” They laughed and replied, “We don’t need that long. It can all be explained in one minute.”
They proceeded to explain that Hinayana Buddhism calls for separating oneself from the world, Mahayana Buddhism calls for one then to unite with what is beyond the physical world, known as “nothing” or no-thing or nirvana, and Tantrayana Buddhism from Tibet provides that once one has done that one has a desire and an obligation to promote truth and justice in the world.
I laughed in return and revealed that I am in fact a Muslim and that they had just summarized in one minute everything there is to know about Islam.
Since Norm understands you, Steve, and says that in forty years he has never heard such wisdom as you summarized in your email, doesn’t that mean that he also understands Jeremy?
Incidentally, I was struck by your mention that the ideogram characters of Chinese writing reflect an entirely different perspective on the world than the linear letters in Indo-European languages. Although I was a Russian interrogator in both Japan and Korea during the Korean War, I had to pretend to be a Chinese interrogator so that no-one would know that the U.S. government was worried about a Soviet invasion to support the Koreans and counter the influence of the Chinese (who in fact were not real allies of the Russians). Therefore I spent months in an intensive Chinese language class. We had a professor, who was purportedly the world’s greatest calligrapher, to teach us writing. He knew 25,000 characters, as contrasted with most college graduates who have mastered only about 5,000. When he wrote on the blackboard, he wrote so fast that the most complex characters seemed simply to materialize full-blown like magic. This was artistry like I had never seen before and have never witnessed since. It gave me a new perspective on reality by seeming to combine in front of our very eyes the unseen with the seen in the form of breath-taking beauty, which in fact is the essence of the real. Islamic calligraphy by the masters of the art can do the same, especially when several words are combined inextricably into what seems to be one whole, exactly like a Chinese character or the traditional Japanese conjis, which come from Chinese.
You note that one can comprehend from sight seven times faster than from sound. This may be one reason why Muslims like artistic writing more than music as a source of inspiration, even though many Sufis like the sound arts as much as the visual ones. And, the magic of expressing whole sentences of meaning in a single coherent character or what looks like an Arabic pictograph may be one unacknowledged reason why Muslims love Arabic calligraphy more than paintings and icons.
Incidentally, you mention the art of distinguishing between the essential and derivitive. During the hurricanes that hit Orlando, Florida, last summer, all my neighbors’ pine tress were either snapped off or uprooted, but mine, equally large, survived unscathed. The difference was that these trees, which externally looked the same, were of different origins. The ones that were destroyed came from places where there are no hurricanes. Mine were native to Florida. So, when the winds got up to a hundred miles an hour or so, my trees simply shed all their new growth and lost at least half of their mass. The unessential was quickly discarded in order to preserve the tree itself. It would be nice if we as a civilization could do the same. Isn’t that what wu-wei or unconscious intelligence is all about?
FROM SHEILA MUSAJI
I would refer you to an article in this issue of TAM by David Sasha which is a review of a documentary called “The Ringworm Children” and which speaks eloquently to the subject of how any community can selectively refuse to see evil that is not perpetrated by “the other.”
FROM BOB CRANE
Qualifying the transcendent by comparing evil with evil
More and more Americans are trying to justify America’s terroristic counter-terrorism around the world by comparing evils quantitatively, for example by saying that Saudi Arabia or some other country is less democratic than America or that Egypt engages more in torture, or whatever. What is the relevance of such comparisons?
Evil is not something that can be quantified. Is it worse that six million Jews were killed by Hitler or one million? The purpose of the holocaust is what makes it so evil, and it would be just as evil if only 500,000 Jews had been killed.
Torture is closely related to genocide. I have specialized on the psychology of torture, and especially of the torturers, for many decades, having been on both sides of the phenomenon.
The most striking phenomenon is that to deliberately torture another human being is so contrary to our human nature that virtually all the professional torturers crack mentally within a couple of years and are deranged the rest of their lives. In Eastern Europe, both the Russian and indigenous torturers ended up in mental institutions. Almost all the Roman Catholic priests were tortured to death in the most diabolical ways, some screaming non-stop for hours and even days before they died. I have an archive of personal accounts of this, which I have never published. When I was the first American student after the war at a German university and went to the U.N. headquarters in Paris in 1948 with signed accounts by witnesses, I was immediately expelled by the military government from Germany and ordered to take the first boat back to America.
During the Korean War, I was threatened with death when I threatened to divulge our rendition of POWs to the South Koreans for torture, which I knew firsthand since I was an official Russian interrogator and was part of this system. Sometimes I would be called at night with the news that a high value prisoner was about to crack, only to get another call half an hour later apologizing because the subject was dead. Even our own friendly torturers never recovered fully from their nightmares.
A vastly milder form of this disorder affects now as much as a quarter of American troops coming back from Iraq. A miniscule percentage are actual torturers, as in Abu Ghaib and Guantanamo, but even taking human life in self-defense can be traumatic, because it is an assault on our identity as spiritual human beings.
It makes no sense to say that other people are worse than we are or that we are better then others. Evil is evil, and as far as I am concerned one cannot compare one evil with another merely on the basis of quantity. To do so, or to try to downplay evil, is itself evil.
Today’s New York Times has two profound articles on the analysis of evil that are relevant to the issue of culpability. The first is a review by William T. Vollman, who spent twenty-three years writing his master work, Rising Up and Rising Down. The NYT introduces Vollman by referring to this work as “a seven-volume meditation on violence and morality.”
Vollman reviews Philip Short’s 537-page book, Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, in which Short tries to be super-objective by determining the extent to which Pol Pot was either simply brutal and evil as a person or a brilliant ideologue with an agenda that could be explained. This raised the question in my mind whether the two explanations are morally distinguishable.
Short does not justify Pol Pot, but he argues that, like Stalin in Isaac Deutscher’s biography, or Hitler in the biography by Allan Bullock, Pol Pot’s evil was banal and even an inherent part of the Cambodian culture, as shown by similar atrocities depicted centuries ago on the stone friezes of Angkor Wat. Pol Pot was described by relatives as a “kindly child.” In the period before he took power he “respected the autonomy of most peasants and performed such kindnesses as sending help to bring in the harvest.” Even his expulsion of entire urban populations to the countryside and often subsequent mass starvation can be explained because he was not a Westernized revolutionary and merely wanted to return Cambodia to an authentically Cambodian life.
Vollman, incidentally, agrees with Short that the deliberate terrorization by Kissinger’s secret bombing campaign, as revealed in William Shawcross’s book, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia, did not cause Pol Pot’s monstrous policies which reached their peak at the time, because these policies made sense, at least to Pol Pot, regardless of what Kissinger did.
Short argues that Pol Pot did not commit genocide, as did the Nazis, because his crimes against humanity were not for extermination but for the purpose of enslavement in a higher cause. Short then concludes with a critique of American policies in Iraq, somewhat bizarrely equating Pol Pot with Bush: “The U.S. Army’s conduct in Iraq, as earlier in Vietnam, merely lengthens the catalog of inhumanities perpetrated in the service of democratic ideals [presumably he is referring to the 100,000 to 200,000 civilian deaths caused by American forces in the past couple of years, as well as the tens of thousands of deaths of children caused by the American liberators during the preceding decade]. “The U.S. allergy to supranational justice is so highly developed,” he writes, “that it rejects [its application] out of hand for American citizens [and argues that] international tribunals should be limited to exceptional crimes such as genocide and not allowed to spill over into areas where the actions of ‘normal’ governments might come under scrutiny.”
In my view, Short and the sympathetic reviewer make the same mistake in reverse that many Americans do in justifying America’s policies of terroristic counter-terrorism. Whereas Short tries to be objective by rationalizing Pol Pot’s evil, tribalistic Americans try to justify American terrorism by claiming that its enemies have no rational reason for their actions. This serves to make American policies seem rational.
My concern is that comparing the quantity of one evil with the quantity of another may make sense politically, but it misses the point that evil is non-quantifiable. The secular mentality is attracted to comparing such phenomena on the basis of quantity because for them quantity defines reality. This contrasts with the most influential book in my life after I escaped from the Gulag, namely, Rene Guenon’s The Reign of Quantity. At the time in 1949, Guenon was a hidden Muslim, so I never dreamed that he was part of a universal spiritual path. His development of what I call the transcendent opposite of quantified materialism has been carried further in a whole library of books by the Swiss scholar, Fritjhof Schuon, the English scholar Martin Lings, and the Persian scholar, Hossein Nasr, as well as a host of lesser scholars around the world.
The second article that I recommend from today’s New York Times is in the NYT Magazine, entitled “The Lost Soldiers of Stalag IX-B,” which tells the story of Jewish American G.I.s who were unknown victims of the Holocaust in Germany. The author, Roger Cohen, reveals the extent to which this story was hushed up for decades, because it would have been politically incorrect to reveal it. The Americans G.I.s were not deliberately exterminated, but large numbers died anyway because they were assigned to the worst work details digging tunnels with insufficient food to survive.
The article concludes by relating the recent argument in Florida between a European Jewish survivor of the Berga Concentration Camp (the very existence of which the U.S. government for decades denied) and a Jewish American survivor of this camp about who suffered the most. The European Jewish surviver claimed that he suffered an evil the American could not comprehend, because he was part of the genocidal history of Europe, whereas the American Jewish survivor the entire time had no idea what was going on.
It would be superficial to say that they were equal in their suffering, because evil consists not in the mere physical harm to the victim by a brutal slave master but in the victim’s psychological trauma of knowing that he was a victim of an evil ideology that can encompass an entire nation and destroy even the memory of humanity. My daily concern is that Americans and others will forget the Holocaust, which I think was unique in the history of evil in the world, because, if it can happen once, it can happen again. And it can happen in America.
Pasted below is an article about Congressman Jim Leach’s acceptance of the “clash of civilizations” paradigm, which is the dynamo behind the current trend in America that resulted in the ultimate perversion of German democracy seventy years ago:
“On a recent edition of the “Iowa Press” television show, Representative Jim Leach (R, Iowa) was asked to reflect on the Iraqi elections and the looming shadow of Iran in the Mideast. Twice Leach referred to an ideological point of view known as the “clash of civilizations.” We are very concerned that an Iowan and a moderate Republican who is a highly respected member of the House Intelligence Committee would employ such an ideology as his foreign-policy framework. The clash framework helped to persuade the political leaders of the United States to invade Iraq preemptively, to risk a protracted armed conflict that may endanger the future of the world and may financially burden generations to come. If Iowans, including Leach, accept the clash between West and Islam without further analysis, then we have fallen into the same trap Osama bin Laden uses to stereotype and demonize the “other” as a monster.
“Three flaws invalidate the clash argument. First, from the start, clash creators Bernard Lewis and Samuel P. Huntington target the faith tradition, Islam, rather than those who hide behind Islam and distort it to justify terrorism. As interpreters of global history and politics for the West, Lewis and Huntington introduced the clash concept after the end of the Cold War. They argued that the problem is Islam itself, not just “Islamic” terrorism, and that Muslims blame the failures of Arab and Muslim societies on the United States. They theorize that Muslims hate us because “their culture” is losing the war with the West and its culture.
“Second, Lewis and Huntington cherry-pick history to blame Islamic civilization (and all Muslims) rather than other explanations for terrorism, such as the economic conditions and authoritarian practices and institutions of post-colonialism. In so doing, Lewis and Huntington ignore evidence that contradicts their view. History is replete with examples of the three Abrahamic faiths - Jews, Christians and Muslims - living together peacefully and tolerantly. It is not Islamic civilization or culture that’s the problem. In fact, sociologists and cultural anthropologists do not even agree on what those terms mean. The clash argument selectively uses historical events to manipulate concepts like culture and civilization to construct an enemy.
“Third, by blaming one civilization as the enemy of the West, the clash framework leads inevitably to the conclusion of conflict, maybe even a continuous war. When people disrespect others, they accentuate their differences with the other and overlook what they have in common. Then fear develops, fear leads to hate and hate begets violence.
“The dualistic trap of the us, the West, versus them, the Islamic world, prevents people from recognizing the common Abraham ethic of Judaism, Christianity and Islam: We love the One God with all of one’s being and we love our neighbors, our fellow beings, regardless of race, religion or cultural background. This is the basis for human liberty, equality and fraternity, expressed in loving for others what we love for ourselves and in protecting these principles.
“Rather than portraying the other as an enemy and building walls, shouldn’t the United States emphasize shared values and build bridges of mutual understanding? If people understood Islam, they would know that when people use Islam as a shield for terrorism, they reject the message of the Qur’an. The clash argument blames Islam and points the finger at Muslims. As a billboard from Northern Ireland states, “Pointing the Finger is Missing the Point.” Indeed, pointing the finger always misses the point. Instead of pointing the finger at Islam and Muslims, let’s examine how economic and political conditions produce terrorists.
“If we do not, if we continue to point the finger, the United States may further alienate moderate, peace-seeking Muslims who have surfaced recently in Iraq and even in Saudi Arabia and who live everywhere, in Iowa and across the globe.