Saturday, March 15, 2008

Naming Evil

In reading accounts of the history of genocide in Rwanda, I was struck first and foremost with the realization that there simply is no way to explain what happened. Nevertheless, one cannot help but search for some ways to comprehend it.

John Rucyahana and others have focused on the years of propaganda dehumanizing the Tutsi, propaganda that filled the airwaves in a country where radio was the primary means of mass communication and even, at times, found its way into church pulpits. Years of relentless, hate-filled speech and a government and society that officially identified people by ethnic origin (on government-issued identity cards, never mind intermarriage and living together side by side for so many generations that linguists cannot find evidence of the myth of Tutsi invasion from the north) all created a situation that blew up, and then only after arms and equipment and training were put together with terrorist squads all over the country, poised to strike in every city and village, backed by government militia and pits already dug to bury the dead.

But what could compel so many people to so brutally attack their friends and neighbors? Not just kill them but mercilessly torture them before and during the killing, forcing the victims to watch the horrific mutilation and deaths of others? No doubt there were many acting out of real fear that if they did not join in that they and their loved ones would be slaughtered as well. But what about all those who believed all the lies about the Tutsi, who, despite the fact that Tutsi were even then a numerical minority and had been out of political power for some time, why were they so fearful and disdainful of them to the point that they considered them evil personified?

I do not presume to have any answers to these questions. There are many who know far more and have written at length in attempts to answer them. But I cannot help but wonder about what there seems to be in human nature that takes offense and acts on real and imagined grudges in violent ways, not just in the context of fighting over limited resources, over religious differences, or over territorial boundaries, but even when two groups of people have so much in common, share the same language, the same social customs and traditions, and are overwhelmingly Christian. What fuels such irrational hatred, a desire to not only extinguish an entire group of people from the face of the earth but to make them suffer so while meeting their deaths?

In posing these questions to myself, I paused at the following passage concerning Herman Melville's Moby Dick, discussed by Andrew Delbanco in the wake of 9/11/01:
The extraordinary thing about that chapter is that it describes how a powerfully articulate, eloquent, charismatic man is able to make this diverse crew come around to seeing the world exactly the way he sees it, how he manages to make his pain their grudge. By the end of the chapter, they're lined up with him, he's fused his will to theirs, and they have become an instrument of his will. They have felt in his engagement, in his eloquence, an opportunity to become heroic, an opportunity to make a difference in the world, to strike back at the world.

I think Melville understood that Ahab's genius was his insight into the fact that all of them felt that they, too, had been wounded by the world. I think we all feel that we've in some way been mistreated or missed a chance or somebody else has gotten something that we deserved. Ahab taps into that feeling, and brings them around so that they become as intent on hunting down and killing that whale as he is. ...

... I'm drawn to one particular comment that Melville makes about the whale, in which he says in Moby Dick, "Ahab found evil visibly personified and made practically assailable." That is, in the whale, in the gigantic body of the white whale, Ahab found a target. He found something one could aim at, one could strike at, through which one could feel a sense of power responding to what the world had done to him.
Interview with Andrew Delbanco, PBS Frontlines: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.

This seems to be where we are all vulnerable, all tempted to project our notions of evil on others or find causes in which we can fight, sometimes believing that we are acting righteously on behalf of others only to be nursing our own private grievances, real or imagined. How do we know what is truly evil, how in naming it can we do anything but objectify it and, at times, personify it? I am not suggesting that evil is not real or that we cannot or should not conceptualize it or act against it, but what about the force of the emotions involved and how easily we can align our personal sense of being slighted and wronged with causes which we only understand to the extent we are informed by those already inflamed with a sense of righteousness, who have helped us "read" the world around us and the various actors in it, whether they be our friends and neighbors, political or religious leaders, principalities and powers?

No comments: