The Boston bombing: The weakness of evil

Commentary: Our reaction to tragedy driven by evil too often winds up glorifying it.

After the death of suspect # 1, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and the arrest of a seriously wounded suspect # 2, Dzokhar Tsarnaev, my reaction was to recall the famous phrase that is the title of Hannah Arendt’s book on the 1968 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, "The Banality of Evil."

Arendt argued that, in the end, evil is not grand, nor is it glamorous. It is not heroic in any sense. It is not even quite the sinister power we often imagine. Arendt’s impressions, after listening to days of Eichmann’s testimony, were of the banality of it all. Evil was not grand, but petty; not compelling, but trite; not energizing, but tired.

Looking at the pictures of these two sad-looking young men, one of whom may have caught the virus of extremism and terror on a recent extended trip in Russia, evil looked banal. It looked tired, trite, small and petty.

Augustine, a precursor to Arendt and arguably the greatest Christian thinker, wrestled with the topic of evil on a more sustained basis than any theologian before or since.

He did so in the context of a theological debate with the Manichaeans, whose view of the world was a thoroughgoing dualism. The Manichaeans insisted on a radical distinction between Light and Darkness, Good and Evil, Spirit and Matter. In a frequently overwhelming and perplexing world, dualism is a very powerful explanatory device. President George W. Bush used it after 9/11: 'You are either for us or you are against us.' Such dualism is quite compelling, but often wrong.

For those influenced by moral dualism, evil is something both grand and powerful. Its powers are prodigious — more than a match for good. And there is something deeply fascinating, even glamorous, about evil.

Augustine, like Arendt, did not perceive evil as being so compelling, nor did he think it wise to portray it that way. For him, it was an emptiness, a wasteland, a nothing. Not a positive or substantive thing in itself.

The consequences — the terrible damage of evil — are real and significant, but evil itself is a nullity, a banality, something that can only deplete and not create.

There are two reasons it is worthwhile to ponder Augustine and Arendt in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.

1. It seems that we — or, let’s say, popular culture — are verging toward a new Manichaeanism, a new dualism, in which we imagine evil as a vast, sinister, creative and glamorous power. If so, we are in danger of inflating evil’s power, its reach and its disabling effects.

Looking at photos of the thousands of police and security forces deployed in Boston, the city and region in lockdown and the legions of officers in SWAT gear (all of which we’ve seen countless times in the movies), I couldn’t help but wonder if we were giving evil more than its due.

There is a kind of not-so-latent Manichaeanism in our nearly apocalyptic newscasts and extreme weather alerts. Remember that, for the Manichaean, the world is in the grip of a comprehensive and destructive power.

Augustine and Arendt do not deny or gainsay the reality of evil or its hideous consequences, but neither do they inflate it to monstrous proportion. They reduce it: Arendt spoke of evil as banal and portrayed Eichmann as pathetic; Augustine described it as a non-generative absence, a privation of the good, without substance or reality in itself.

Today we risk magnifying evil to such vast dimension that we deify it. Our allocations for defense and security are impressive, but disproportionate. Playing on our fears, the security state seems to encroach all around us.

2. Another feature of strict moral dualism is to imagine all evil as “out there,” in some other race, nation, religion, demonic force or enemy. Both Arendt and Augustine resist this. We too should resist the impulse to draw conclusions about Chechnyans or Muslims or immigrants from the acts of the Tsarnaev brothers.

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Posted Tue, Apr 23, 7:04 a.m. Inappropriate

Well said Anthony.

Posted Tue, Apr 23, 7:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Sorry Anthony, a little too kumbayaish for me. No, we shouldn't "give evil more than its due" by celebrating and glamorizing it (as Quentin Tarantino and so many others do with glee), but at the same time you can't be serious, or are sadly mistaken, if you assert that there are forces of evil that are not sinister, diabolical and yes, very powerful. As Baudelaire said, ""The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn't exist."

You cannot be serious that "there but for fortune" every one of us would be planting bombs at a Boston Marathon to kill and maim innocent people. Even in the eye of that ultimate minister of peace, Jesus, while every one might have the opportunity to be redeemed, it's clear not every one will be, or wants to be. The evil of a Gary Ridgeway is indeed banal but also sick to the very core. The evil of a Hitler is a monstrous sickness so deep as to be beyond redemption, beyond humanity. How can anyone consider a fiend who would rape and murder an innocent baby, or a Pol Pot -- a cold-hearted SOB responsible for the deaths of millions of his countrymen in three years -- as anything put pure, unadulterated evil.

It's a nice fancy to think that if we could all just "communicate" the world would be swell. History shows otherwise. Yes, good is stronger than evil and I have faith that it will triumph, but to pretend that it will not be a a difficult struggle is the ultimate fantasy.

Posted Tue, Apr 23, 9:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Wonderful article. Thank you. I don't see your piece as diminishing evil as the above comment does but I think comparing Eichmann to the Tsarnaevs does stretch. Eichmann, at his trial, claimed to be "following orders", thus the banality theme. I can't imagine the now-dead Tsarnaev presenting himself in that way.


Posted Tue, Apr 23, 11:26 a.m. Inappropriate

-arturking- it is also clear that human judgement, wether it be on Hitler or Pol Pot, or any other seemingly atrocious "evil" person in not our responsibility. I recall a quote from The Lord of the Rings, a conversation between Faramir and Frodo. While not necessarily a scholarly citation, Tolkien's sentiments of assessing evil is spot-on. "Faramir: [from the Extended Edition] The enemy? His sense of duty was no less than yours, I deem. You wonder what his name is, where he comes from, and if he really was evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home, and would he not rather have stayed there... in peace? War will make corpses of us all."

Hitler and Pol Pot and the Boston Marathon bombers all had a sense of "duty," however maligned with the majority of our human, empathetic society. Where is grace and forgiveness, if not at the heart of the hardest of forgivable tragedies? Does it exist only for minor, societal infringements, or is our God, is our savior a little bigger than vengeful negligence of humanities worst of the worst. Evil, it seems, is only truly defined by the eyes that view it.

Posted Tue, Apr 23, 1:46 p.m. Inappropriate

"Evil, it seems, is only truly defined by the eyes that view it."

Holy wars with a life of their own or hegemony dependent upon citizenries seeing themselves as a home team that does no wrong as long as it wins. Is the human race going to take "an eye for an eye" to our grave?


Posted Tue, Apr 23, 1:10 p.m. Inappropriate

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

In recognizing this we must do something, and there is the Good News.

Yet Solyhenitsyn also observed, “It is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.” That is our discussion here. We must contend with assertions of what is good and evil, and that would involve something of what Robinson apparently scorns as dualist thinking.

Arthurking speaks to this well. Looking at the nature of evil as it exists in reality, we will find its nature and possibility within ourselves, yes, because it exists in a sinister, diabolical power greater than and independent of us. To say there is real darkness and light, truth and falsehood is not an unsophisticated dualism that diminishes, but something logical, right and necessary.

Robinson and others may desire or imagine it is otherwise, but of course they do not really believe it. Is it dualism when they speak or write in attempt to distinguish fact from fiction, and right from wrong?

What diminishes the reality of evil is not dualism, but deconstructive notions of postmodern "narratives" and solipsistic therapeutic concepts. A morally and philosophically serious consideration of evil is what Augustine did, and what Arendt and those at Nuremberg were forced to do in aftermath of enough of the world not naming and resisting it in its previous stages, in national socialism's assertions about the good, beautiful, and true.

If that, and the history of evil, teaches us anything, it is that we must name the evil and the falsehood. In the aftermath of another act of jihad against the kufar, is it good for us to call it empty and merely trivialize his "motivations" into our own therapeutic,m materialist categories, or to consider the claim as they see them: that they are ghazis, shahids, doing the highest good?

Posted Tue, Apr 23, 4:31 p.m. Inappropriate

A compelling article; thanks. I would add one other dimension, the way modern media need and feed melodrama in such stories. In melodrama, there are clear heroes and (boo, hiss) villains; in drama the good and evil are much more mixed up in the same people and often the good person dies tragically, partly owning to his own inner flaws. Media should reflect truth and the complexity of life, particularly because the story is being reported with only partial information. Ratings-based media wants to get a melodrama started, to make sure folks tune in tomorrow.

Posted Tue, Apr 23, 9:44 p.m. Inappropriate

“The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he did not exist.”

― Charles Baudelaire


Posted Thu, Apr 25, 7:38 p.m. Inappropriate

The truth of Robinson's insights seems to me borne out in news reports of how "normal" (banal!) perpetrators often seem, whether from the perspective of those who know them best or even from the outside looking in. (Exceptions, of course, include the abundant tragedies in which mental illness is clearly a factor.)

Is not what we label "sinister" or "diabolical," after all, an extreme expression of what at some point started out as very ordinary: "normal" apathy, self-absorption, prejudice, resentment--whose cumulative effects sometimes make sensational headline news? Dennis Clark III, a recent local example, was carrying a book titled "Fight Back and Win: What to Do When You Feel Cheated or Wronged" (how banal!) when he went on his rampage that ended with five people dead.

Robinson is exactly right in cautioning against a Manichaean dualism that assures us that "we" are somehow better than "them." The same ordinary impulses that lead some people to horrific acts are common to us all. Resentment and ideological certitude, for example, may seem comparatively benign but cumulatively they may lead to consequences that equal or far exceed the horrors of terrorism. The failure to vote, for example, or voting for self-interest may lead to policies--even wars--that impose untold suffering on millions.

In my particular faith tradition repentance is the starting point for the human hope of being saved from ourselves. In my experience it offers a pretty good shot at beginning to see "me" in "them."


Posted Sat, Apr 27, 1:33 p.m. Inappropriate

"Resentment and ideological certitude, for example, may seem comparatively benign but cumulatively they may lead to consequences that equal or far exceed the horrors of terrorism. The failure to vote, for example, or voting for self-interest may lead to policies--even wars--that impose untold suffering on millions."

Thank you for saying that.

"'Democracy May Have Had Its Day,' is the tag line for the WSJ's interview today with Donald Kagan, the inspiration coming from his 'farewell lecture' commencing emeritus status at Yale. Kagan continues the theme he began in 1991: "Democracy, 'one of the rarest, most delicate and fragile flowers'... relies on 'free, autonomous and self-reliant" citizens, and 'extraordinary leadership' to flourish, even survive. These kinds of citizens aren't born—they need to be educated.... 'It you don't have [intellectual variety], it's not only that you are deprived of knowing some of the things you might know. It's that you are deprived of testing the things that you do know or do think you know or believe in, so that your knowledge is superficial.''

Professor Kagan credits a tough Brownsville boyhood, not Thucydides his speciality, for teaching him the "most elementary childish fact, which is: It you don't want trouble with somebody else, be sure he has something to be afraid of."

One can only hope the Professor will grow even older and wiser in retirement by adding to his own 'intellectual variety' a few items like O. Stone's 2012 "The Untold Story of the United States," and consider adding to his upside, the downside of widespread fears of appearing weak.


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