Sunday, November 15, 2015

This Thing Called Evil

This may be a challenging post for many folks. So, let me just say right up front the words that I really want to leave you with – before anyone has the chance to get angry or offended:
Let’s forgive ourselves.
Let’s forgive each other.
Let’s strive to do better.

Okay, with that out of the way, let me begin again.

One of the more interesting questions to be posed of any of the candidates this campaign season is whether or not they would kill the baby Adolf Hitler if they were somehow given the opportunity to go back in time and locate the infant evil incarnate. Certainly it’s an interesting question to pose for the array of answers it might elicit. Most interesting, though, is how the question itself reveals how many of us think about the nature of evil. Evil is “out there.” It’s a dark force that the hapless might stumble upon. It takes up residence in someone such that they then become evil. It’s a conscious entity of some sort – like Satan, for instance – that actively plots ways to get us to do its nefarious bidding.

The fact of the matter is, however, that World War II was not the doing of just one evil man. It was the result of a multitude of causes and conditions as diverse as the humiliation of a people and the economic devastation of a nation in the wake of World War I, the rise of fascism and militarism in various other places around the world, the willing complicity of much of the German populace, and apparently even the success of the concept of manifest destiny that helped create the coast to coast United States that we know of today.




Buddhists who understand the concept of dependent origination look at everything in such terms. Everything is dependent upon everything else. Nothing exists entirely on its own. Nothing arises fully formed and unchangeable. Evil is not just “out there.” If evil exists it is because of the causes and conditions that each of us helps to create and perpetuate. Remember:
Let’s forgive ourselves.
Let’s forgive each other.
Let’s strive to do better.

Buddhists believe that each of us is capable of both good and evil depending upon the circumstances. A person might do something in one moment that is wholesome and good while acting with a mind that is calm and compassionate, and then do something “evil” in the next moment should they allow their mind to succumb to one of the “three poisons” of attachment, aversion, and delusion (or greed, hatred, and ignorance.) Consider the story of a bloodthirsty killer by the name of Angulimala, for instance, so named because he wore a necklace made from the fingers of his victims. The Buddha is reported to have won over the mind of this evil individual to the point that he ended up repenting and becoming a Buddhist monk.

Why does it matter how we think about evil? Well, if we think of evil as something that is “out there” and impossible for “good” people to perpetrate, then we fail to clearly see the nature of our actions and ourselves. We fail to clearly see the nature of other people as well. In order to remind ourselves of the dynamic and ever-present potential for both good and evil depending upon the states of mind that we cultivate, Zen Buddhists commonly recite the Verse of Repentance, which goes something like this:
All the evil actions that I have perpetrated in the past,
arising from beginningless attachment, aversion, and delusion,
and manifested through body, speech, and mind,
I now repent all of them completely.

It is especially important for us to apply a clear-headed view of the nature of evil as we make decisions as to how to respond to such evil acts as the recent terrorist killings of over 130 people in Paris this past weekend. After all, it’s not like we in the West were just minding our own business prior to being put upon by such terrorist activity. And no, no, no, I am not blaming the victims here. Remember:
Let’s forgive ourselves.
Let’s forgive each other.
Let’s strive to do better.

But even as I seek to refrain from blaming the victims here I nonetheless seek to clearly understand the causes and conditions that made such terror possible. It is not merely my opinion that the formation of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is rooted in the destruction of Iraq at the hands of the U.S. military. It is not merely my opinion that the people of the United States were sold on that war with the false narrative that Iraq’s then leader had weapons of mass destruction and was somehow responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center. It is not merely my opinion that the torture of the guilty and innocent alike at Abu Ghraib prison, Guantanamo Bay, and various other black operations sites as part of our covert operation of extraordinary rendition helped create perhaps the most bloodthirsty of terrorist groups to ever exist on the face of the earth.

The French, to their credit, were not supportive of that war. However, they do have the dark history of colonizing the predominately Islamic country of Algeria and engaging in acts of brutality in order to keep the Algerian people from becoming independent. Students of history might want to read Henri Alleg’s The Question (1958), an autobiographical account of torture at the hands of French forces. Apparently our own military is aware of what is described in this book. The torture technique now known as waterboarding could have been lifted from its pages. Remember:
Let’s forgive ourselves.
Let’s forgive each other.
Let’s strive to do better.

In the wake of this carnage in Paris, just as there was in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center, there will be calls for the eradication of the evil that is ISIS. That would seem to make sense if the evil that we seek to destroy were merely something that is “out there.” But it is not. We all helped to create it. We all help to perpetuate it.

Consider the following: Let’s say that I have terrible housekeeping habits. I never clean. I leave food scraps all around. I’ve let my home become a den of filth and squalor. Not surprisingly, after many months of the accumulation of my very own detritus, my home becomes infested with roaches. So, I’m posed with a couple of options: 1. Spend a whole lot of time and effort cleaning up all of my mess as I should have been doing all along, and then being patient as the roaches die out or leave for other filthy quarters. 2. Hire an exterminator to come in and spray something that will kill all of the crawling critters. The problem with the second option, though, is that the pesticide has the potential to cause cancer and it’s not just me in the house. I’ve got young children who are living here with me. It’s also just a short term solution. The roaches will come back and I’ll have to spray all over again. Unfortunately, I’m lazy. And on top of that I don’t really believe that I created the problem with the roaches in the first place. And another part of me just doesn’t care. You know, I’ve come to hate those damned roaches and I just want to see them all dead right now. I choose the second option. Now my family and I must deal with roaches from time to time for as long as we may live, along with the additional possibility that one of us will contract cancer and suffer much more than just a roach infestation.

My heart goes out to all of the victims of terror and their families. My heart goes out to all of the innocent victims of our war on terror. My heart goes out to all those who engage in acts of terror out of some deluded sense of the rightness of their ways. Yes, even the deaths of the terrorists is a tragic waste of human potential. How about we begin to look at this thing called evil just a little bit more closely and clearly?  And remember:
Let’s forgive ourselves.
Let’s forgive each other.
Let’s strive to do better.

  
Images
Likeness of Angulimala cropped and filtered from original image via:

References

Alleg, H. (1958) The question. Midnight Press

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

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