Searching for Evil
AN EXAMINATION OF THE NATURE OF EVIL AND ITS PERSISTENCE
Recipe for Evil
1. Overidentify with a cause.
2. Elevate personal goals over concern for human consequences of decisions.
3. Lack empathy.
Children usually see evil in one-dimensional terms. Evil is demonical. Evil comes in the form of warped or sadistic individuals bent on attacking God, motherhood, the flag, or in the case of Lex Luthor and Brainiac, Superman.
For many people today, Osama Bin Laden is the face of evil. He is seen by most Americans as the diabolical leader of a global terrorist conspiracy and the perverter of “true Islam.” He is seen as the evil one behind the killing of thousands of innocent civilians in the World Trade Center. Evil here is personified.
Some people have a notion of evil that is less personalised that media suggests. Evil in the case of a member of the German Eisatzgruppen shooting a civilian is focused on the evil act rather than the evildoer. The case forces us to confront the reality of evil: if killing innocent civilians in the name of a fanatical ideology isn’t evil, what is?
Jewish theologian Martin Buber considered the nature of evil in his classic work, Good and Evil. Buber argued that evil is not, as it is commonly understood, the opposite of good: “It is usual to think of good and evil as two poles, two opposite directions, the antithesis of one another…We must begin by doing away with this convention.” Buber argued that whereas good comes from a dedication to walking the moral path, one falls into evil through an absence of attention. One must work to be good, but one happens to be evil.
Hannah Arendt, in her often-quoted account of the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, wrote: “The deeds were monstrous, but the doer was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic or monstrous.” Arendt concluded that Eichmann, far from having the desire to prove a villain, sent thousands to their deaths merely because of “a lack of imagination.” His only motive was personal advancement: “he never realised what he was doing.” Arendt wondered whether “the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of the specific content and quite independent of results…could ‘condition’ men against evildoing.”
Judge Richard A. Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals is recognised as the leading intellectual of the judicial branch. Posner wrote on the subject of evil in an essay (reviewing Ingo Muller’s book, Hitler’s Justice) entitled “Courting Evil” in The New Republic. Posner agreed that the German judiciary did evil because it “was so immersed in a professional culture as to be oblivious to the human consequences of their decisions.” Posner wondered, provocatively, whether American “prosecutors who pursue marijuana growers, sellers of dirty magazines, and violators of arcane campaign financing regulations are inappropriately using their offices in much the same manner as did prosecutors who earlier brought charges against Germans for ‘dishonoring the race.'” Posner urged judges against being “eager enlisters in the popular movements of the day.”
ITEM: THE INCARCERATION RATE IN THE U. S. RANKS HIGHEST AMONG INDUSTRIALISED NATIONS….FORMER DIRECTOR OF THE FEDERAL JUDICIAL CENTER, JUDGE WILLIAM SCHWARZER, SAYS: “NO INDUSTRIALISED COUNTRY IMPOSES SENTENCES OF COMPARABLE SEVERITY.”
Evil exists within our legal system. But evil laws, policies, and decisions are not the same as injustices. Whenever an innocent person is convicted of a crime, there is an injustice. Wrongful convictions are not always the result of evil, however. Wrongful convictions sometimes occur without anyone doing anything wrong (e.g., as a result of a victim’s mistaken identification). Neither is a bad law or policy necessarily evil. Bad laws result from a miscalculation of costs and benefits (given the complexity of the world, such miscalculations are common). Prohibition might have been a bad policy, but it was not an evil one.
Evil is something different.
Evil in our legal system often results from overidentification with popular causes (often an “ism”) of the day–especially ideological causes that treat mankind as specimens or lead to “us versus them” mentalities. When overidentification with a cause is coupled with elevated concern for personal goals–often the career goals of the government actor or actors–over consequences to others, the chances for evil further increase. A third factor that increases the likelihood of evil is a government actor’s low level of empathy for the persons adversely affected by his or her action.
Some Quotes Regarding what Evil is
Evil is an absence.
Evil is “lack of direction.”
There is “a strange interdependence between thoughtlessness and evil.”
Evil results from “the indifference to the human consequences of decisions.”
Some Examples of Evil in the American Justice System
Injustices might not be evil; Bad laws might not be evil laws.
Case 1: Mandatory Minimum Sentences
Richard Anderson was a forty-nine year old longshoreman in Oakland, California. Anderson had no criminal record and a reputation after twenty-four years on the docks as a reliable worker. Anderson’s troubles began when he was waved down on an Oakland Street by an acquaintance. The acquaintance asked Anderson to drive him to a Burger King a few miles away, and Anderson complied. At the Burger King a federal agent posing as a drug customer went to Anderson’s truck and picked up the 100 grams of crack that Anderson’s acquaintance had with him. Anderson was tried before a jury on charges of violating federal drug trafficking laws. The jury concluded that Anderson knew he was driving his acquaintance to a drug deal.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 provides for a mandatory penalty of ten years without the possibility of parole for those participating in a transaction involving over fifty grams of crack. The Act focuses on the weight of the drugs; a person’s prior record or degree of participation in the crime is irrelevant.
United States District Judge William Schwarzer imposed the ten-year minimum prison term on Anderson. Schwarzer fought back tears as he said to those assembled in his court-room: “We are required to follow the rule of law . . . [b]ut in this case the law does anything but serve justice. . . . It may profit us very little to win the war on drugs if in the process we lose our soul.”
Case 2: Zero Tolerance & Asset Forfeiture
Kevin Hogan and a crew of three headed for Alaska in a $ 140,000 fishing boat he had just purchased in Washington. The boat developed engine problems along the route and was forced to stop briefly in Canada for repairs. The Canadian stop was reported to customs agents in Ketchikan, who searched the boat. The search revealed that one of Hogan’s three crew members had 1.7 grams of marijuana in his jacket. Customs officials acknowledged that Hogan knew nothing about the marijuana aboard his boat, the Hold Tight.
Under the “Zero Tolerance” program initiated less than two months earlier, even small amounts of drugs could result in arrests and forfeitures of property. Customs agents decided to seize Hogan’s boat. Hogan had planned to use the boat during Alaska’s twenty-four hour halibut season later that month. The halibut catch could have netted Hogan the $ 40,000 he needed to pay the mortgage on the Hold Tight. Hogan said as a result of the seizure, “I stand to lose it all in this deal,” referring to everything for which he had worked during the prior fifteen years. In Hogan’s hometown of Homer, Alaska, more than 1,000 people signed petitions supporting Hogan. The city council passed a resolution urging that Customs officials show “some sense of proportionality” in the Hogan case.
The Customs Service expressed its position in a letter written by John Elkins, acting director of the Service’s regulatory procedures and penalties division in Washington, D.C., to the Customs Service’s Anchorage office. Elkins said that it is not enough to warn crew members of the drug program, as Hogan said he had done. Elkins contended that Hogan was negligent in not detecting the marijuana: “It is our view that Kevin Hogan was, as owner and master, responsible for the actions of crew members.”
Case 3: Project Looking Glass
“Project Looking Glass” the name given to a U.S. Postal Service investigation designed to uncover purchasers of child pornography. Unfortunately the over zealous nature of this operation caused people like Robert Brase, a farmer in Nebraska to order videotape showing minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Brase had been married for ten years and was the father of two children. He had no criminal record, and there was no evidence that he had ever sexually abused children. The only child pornography discovered was the tape received from the U.S. Postal Service which was sent as part of the sting operation.
On October 22, 1987, a grand jury in Omaha indicted Brase for allegedly receiving by mail a videotape showing minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Eleven days later, Robert Brase drove his pickup truck to a seldom-used county road nine miles from Shelby and shot himself. Brase was one of four persons indicted in the government sting operation to commit suicide.
Case 4: The “Significant Injury Test”
Due to the high numbers of court cases from prisonsers regarding indecent treatment the Fifth Circuit (part of the legal system dealing with court cases regarding prisoners) adopted a significant injury” test which stated that as a docket control measure it would only deliberate on cases where there was permanent injury or one requiring hospitalisation.
While the significant injury requirement may assist the Fifth Circuit in controlling its caseload, it also has the effect, as the United States pointed out in its amicus brief, of allowing torture, so long as it leaves no lasting marks. For example, it would permit the use of the “Tucker Telephone,” a hand-cranked device that was used in Arkansas prisons in the 1960s to administer electrical shocks to sensitive parts of the body. So long as the resulting injuries were neither permanent nor required hospitalization, prisoners would be fair game under the Fifth Circuit’s test.
Case 5: The Kelly Michaels Case
Kelly Michaels worked at a day care center in New Jersey. On a visit to a doctor’s office one day, one of the children at the center said, as his temperature was being taken rectally, “that’s what my teacher does.” Soon the boy’s teacher, Kelly Michaels, found herself the subject of a criminal investigation.
Investigators repeatedly interviewed three and four-year-olds, suggesting through their graphic and disturbing questions that the children had been sexually molested. The suggestions finally worked: children who initially denied that they were abused in any way finally said that they had been. Children try hard to find answers that please adults. One child said that Michaels “made us eat boiled babies,” another said that “she put a sword in my rectum,” and a third said that she “played piano naked.”
Kelly Michaels was charged with sexually abusing twenty children. Parents wearing “Believe the Children” buttons packed the courtroom for the trial. Journalists played the new daycare horror story for all it was worth. A jury convicted Michaels. She spent the next seven years of her life in prison.
The trouble was Kelly Michaels was 100% innocent.
Question : Will the War on Evil Produce More Evil?
Answer : Abu Ghraib Prison, Iraq
Reducing the Amount of Evil
Evil won’t go away. We can, however, reduce the frequency and severity of its occurrence.
Empathy: The Enemy of Evil
Empathy is an “act of great sophistication” necessitating the imagination of the beginning, middle, and possible end of another human being. It has variously been described as a “capacity,” a “behaviour,” a “mode of observation,” and as “an information-gathering activity.” Websters International Dictionary defines empathy as “the capacity for participating in or vicariously experiencing another’s feelings.”
Researchers believe that empathy is developed at an early age through the repeated pairing of a child’s feelings with the feelings of caregivers. The capacity can be further developed throughout childhood. In his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman identifies empathy as one of the five “domains” of emotional intelligence. He looks forward to the day that “empathy will hold as valued a place in the curriculum as algebra.”
Empathy jars us out of thoughtlessness and forces us to consider the human consequences of our actions. It causes remorse. It is the great enemy of evil.
Empathy levels vary between individuals and between cultures. Empathy levels are determined in part by genetics and are in part a function of culture. Measured levels of empathy, according to anthropologist Ronald Cohen, are highest in North America and Europe. Lowest empathy levels are reported in regions with loose family structures, large family size, low levels of affluence, and high child mortality rates–factors that reduce opportunities for (or discourage) close parent-child bonding.
In general, people empathise most readily with persons whom they share common characteristics. (Some writers have identified empathy as the “source of racism” because of evidence suggesting that people have higher levels of empathy for others of the same race or ethnicity.) Literature, film, art, and good education are capable of deepening and extending outward–and that’s the key–the reach of our empathy as they help us understand our common humanity.
Increasing levels of empathy is one tool for fighting evil, but there are others as well.
Ways of reducing the amount of Evil
1. Promote tolerance through free speech.
Protecting the speech we hate makes us more tolerant people in general–and tolerant people are less inclined to develop the “us versus them” mentality that is often associated with evil.
2. Pay attention to consequences.
Easier said than done, but a constant focus on the human consequences of decisions–a thoughtfulness–is the most important key to avoiding evil.
3. Reduce career incentives that lead to an underweighing of human consequences.
For example, prosecutors should be rewarded based on how well they serve justice, not on their won-loss records.
4. Facilitate interaction between legal decision makers and the persons affected by their decisions.
The more interaction that occurs, the greater the opportunities for empathy to develop and for the human consequences of decisions to be fully weighed. Expand the discretion to be lenient.
5. Facilitate the development of empathy in homes and in schools.
Promote strong families and encourage new programs in schools to develop the pragmatic art of living well.
6. Choose heroes wisely.
Hold up those who have served justice, not those who have achieved fame or financial success.
7. Maintain a dogmatic belief in objective value.
The central values of western civilisation–mercy, truth telling, respect for parents and elders, duties to children, justice, equality, magnanimity, reverence for life–should be accepted, not questioned.