The Boston bombing: The weakness of evil

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

There is a distinction to be made — and held — between good and evil, but no one in Augustine’s thinking is beyond temptation, beyond the capacity for evil. Bilbo Baggins was tempted by the ring. Harry Potter gave consideration, if briefly, to the option embodied by Voldemort and the dementors.

Assuming for the moment that the Tsarnaev brothers are found guilty of the marathon bombing, they are not so ‘other’ that we cannot see or imagine ourselves in them. One appears to be a young man lost between two worlds, while the other was drawn in by the influence of his troubled brother. They are not the evil masterminds of film and fantasy, but sad and pathetic.  

This is not to excuse what they have done, but to point out that their evil is not brave, so much as banal. It is not so foreign to us as to be beyond recognition.

Augustine believed that it was both false and misleading to portray life as irredeemable and in the grip of a comprehensive and destructive power. In the end, good is stronger than evil and life is redeemable. Believing this and acting on it is the meaning of faith.

In the immediate aftermath of the marathon bombings, we witnessed this faith in action, as people risked themselves and spontaneously sacrificed for others. Boston as a whole seemed to come together in a gutsy and wonderful posture of defiance. Evil and mayhem would stop neither Boston, nor future marathons. They would not bow to evil. 

If Bostonians are right to defy evil with resilience and resolve (and they are), neither should America inflate it by giving more than its due, by imagining it to be larger or more powerful than it is. Augustine wanted us to remember and trust that this good is stronger than evil. Otherwise, the negation that is evil has free rein.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.