To paraphrase Annie Dillard who paraphrased Oscar Hammerstein: Fish gotta swim. Birds gotta fly, but men do all sorts of nasty things to one another.
Why do human beings, who are supposed to be just a little lower than the angles, murder, pillage and torture one another? Don't tell me the devil makes us do it. Some of the most heinous crimes in history were committed by those who speak for God.
Still, I don't believe human beings are naturally evil. Neither are they intrinsically good. What people will or will not do depends upon culture and circumstance, and the individual who will risk his life to rescue a kitten in traffic today, can turn around and brutalize another human being tomorrow. It depends on what is at stake and the degree to which the act can be rationalized. And today the stakes have never been higher.
"The banality of evil" is a phrase coined by Hanna Arendt to describe the holocaust, human slavery and other evils of history that were perpetuated by otherwise good people who accepted the premises of their culture and condoned, even encouraged, injustice and the persecution of their fellow human beings, because to them these acts appeared normal.
Look around the world, and you will see it every day. It is not that difficult for ordinarily good people to lose their humanity. Remember how easily this great nation turned to torture when it felt threatened. Now we learn that even when torture is used, it backfires about as often as it works. (Washington Post, March 30.)
When the CIA got their hands on Abu Zubaida, President Bush announced that Zubaida was "al-Qaida's chief of operations." He wasn't, and much of the information the CIA extracted from him through torture was worthless. Worse than worthless, because now the U.S. is in a compromised position if and when Zubaida's case come to court.
On the other hand, Abu Musab al Zarqawi was an al-Qaida leader. Without waterboarding or other forms of physical abuse, and armed only with an understanding of human nature and Iraqi culture, interrogators obtained information from captives that led to Zarqawi, who was subsequently killed in a U.S. 2006 airstrike. (Matthew Alexander, "How to Break a Terrorist.")
After 9/11, the Bush administration encouraged a culture of fear and nationalism. Muslims were dangerous radicals; terrorists, less than human. The nation was under attack, and the administration pressured the U.S. Justice Department to sanction torture. They did, and this led to the abuses at Abu Ghraib and America's loss of its long-held moral high ground.
The banality of evil can also be found in the financial world and the culture of Wall Street and the very rich. No one is being tortured, but large numbers of people are suffering nonetheless, and all due to the blind greed of a few highly placed people.
Mind you, these people are not necessarily evil in and of themselves. They love their families, give generously to charities, and are probably good churchgoing individuals admired by many. But they were imbedded in a culture that said you are entitled to make as much money as you can, in anyway you can, as long as you don't break the law.
The problem is many of these people were already rich and powerful. They wrote the law. Furthermore, until the overheated, overextended financial system finally blew up, the public supported this culture. It was called capitalism.
Capitalism, a reader e-mailed me, is basically competition. Perhaps, but that is not its definition. Capitalism is an economic system defined by public ownership of capital, labor and property. Don't fool yourself that communism isn't competitive. Man is a competitive animal, whatever the system.
The more important question is how do we control our competitive nature so that it serves the greater good. When an inordinate amount of wealth and power falls into the hands of the few, those few develop their own culture, a culture of entitlement that allows them to distance themselves from the consequence of their acts. And it is this that leads to evil.
The gap between the rich and the poor is widening, and nowhere more so than in the U.S. This is a perfect formula for evil as a select group of powerful individuals begin to consider themselves above the laws and obligations that constrain ordinary human beings from savaging one another.
Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.