Evil you can't make sense of
There is no such thing as a satisfying explanation for massacres or senseless wars. But the human motivations behind them are closer than we'd like to believe.
[content warning: extreme wartime violence, including against civilians]
I recently finished reading Jason Stearns’ Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, a deeply unsettling attempt to make sense of the violence that killed millions of people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo around the turn of the century.
Stearns finds explanations for the wars, at least in the sense that he’s able to trace events back to their causes and the various actors’ motivations. But in a much more salient sense the killing remains deeply senseless and arbitrary. Rebel groups and the state alike kidnapped civilians to make up for mismanaged finances. Children died in skirmishes as commanders fought to prove who was the most macho. Entire villages were massacred over what later turned out to have been misunderstandings.
I don’t think there’s a way to make one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the past few decades make sense. Part of me feels like my desire to “make sense of it” is just a way of putting the spotlight on me and my discomfort rather than on the people who suffered themselves. But I think there’s a second meaning to the search for explanations, and one that’s important.
Hannah Arendt famously attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann for his role in the Holocaust, and left terrified that a man who had committed some of the worst deeds of all time did not seem to have particularly strong reasons for doing so.
Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III 'to prove a villain.' Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all… He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing… It was sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means identical with stupidity—that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.
In her words, Eichmann took part in “the banality of evil” — he excelled in evil because it had become normal and he wanted to be successful, not because he deeply identified with the Nazi party. As an existential “explanation” this is frightening and meaningless, but as a reflection on what led a person to commit unthinkable acts it is profound.
One of the reasons Eichmann in Jerusalem has had such a lasting impact is that the world is full of banal evil. The mass suffering and death we’ll see in the next hundred years isn’t because fossil fuel leaders hated people in developing countries with a fiery passion. They just wanted to advance and make money and didn’t really care about the consequences it would have on people they’d never meet.
On a much smaller scale, when I choose not to give as much as to effective charities, it isn’t because I consciously hate people with malaria and want them to suffer. I’m just drawn into my own desires in a way that lets me ignore other people. There are things we can learn from Arendt’s analysis of deep, incomparable evil that help us to understand the evils we’re capable of committing ourselves.
I have had similar thoughts reading Stearns’ interviews with people who took part in the many, many atrocities of the Congo Wars. The point is not the navel-gaze about “what I would have done in this situation” or to turn real human suffering into a neat little moral lesson for Westerners. But I do think we ought to spend time understanding why people do the things they’ve done, and to do so in a way that lets us recognize the same broken tendencies when they pop up in ourselves.
There is no way to reduce the conflict to a single person any more than Eichmann represented the entire Nazi regime. The book is long in part because the wars were fought by so many people doing so many different things with so many distinct motivations. So I will just stick with a single story that’s stuck with me.
One of the most haunting parts of the book1 comes as Stearns speaks with villagers in the eastern part of the country (near the border with Rwanda) about a series of massacres perpetrated by Hutu and Tutsi militias against civilians of the other ethnic group. Almost everybody he speaks to has at least one family member who was murdered, and even ten years later during the interviews the wounds are still quite raw. Each person is intimately familiar with the details of the atrocities that were committed against their friends, family members, and co-ethnics.
I expected that, for example, Tutsi interviewees might be inclined to excuse or minimize the massacres Tutsi militia had carried out against Hutu civilians, even if they weren’t fully aligned with the militias aims. In such a traumatic and violent situation, I knew to expect variations on “this is why the massacre was necessary” or “this is why they deserved it”. I was prepared to read justifications for the unjustifiable.
But I wasn’t prepared for so many of his interviewees be genuinely unaware of what happened.
I wasn’t prepared for the shock,
or the silence,
or the “are you sure?”
How many of those providing the arms and funds to massacre civilians knew what they were doing?
Certainly some. Certainly many. But apparently not all.
“are you sure?”
Not even doubting
Frightened and disturbed
unprepared to deal with the implications
“are you sure?”
Can you imagine giving material support to a group who’d promised to protect you from genocidaires and discovering ten years after the fact that the group had beaten refugee infants to death in your name?
“are you sure?”
I have not been able to get this refrain out of my head, and I keep finding smaller versions of it every day. The evil we allow and support and take part in and just don’t have the eyes to see.
I don’t think most of my anti-CRT friends are intentionally trying to be racist or nationalistic. I think a lot of them are genuinely unaware of many of the historical facts that the “pro-woke-history” crowd wants to be taught in schools — the U.S. has overthrown democracy in countries to set up dictatorships (off the top of my head, Chile, Iran, Brazil, and Argentina come to mind as clear-cut examples where we ruined the lives of millions of people for our own gain). We committed numerous war crimes in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A lot of current poverty in developing countries can be traced to extractive institutions set up by colonizing forces (including ours, especially in Latin America) for money and power. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is one of the most evil things that has ever happened, and the “it probably saved lives overall” line I learned in my high school textbook has been thoroughly discredited for many years.
I don’t think my conservative friends are trying to cover these facts up. (Although I do think many of the people behind the anti-CRT scare know these facts and just don’t care.) And I don’t have to imagine that they would be horrified to discover that they were wrong because I was horrified to discover I was wrong about these facts and it was deeply unsettling.
But more generally I think a lot of the evil that happens in the U.S. happens in abstract ways that not everybody who participates in it is aware of. I think my anti-vaccine friends genuinely do believe they’re doing the right thing even as their choices kill people. I think if my anti-fighting-climate-change friends knew how many people were going to die in which horrible ways and what levels of suffering the rest would go through, they would be behaving differently. (For obvious reasons I can’t give you an example of a way that I don’t know I’m currently hurting people, but let’s be honest they definitely exist and I need to find them and repent.)
I think this matters on a practical level because “I need to get this information to people who care about other people” is a different problem than “half the country literally hates people”, even if the reason information is so hard to get out is because there is a small-but-powerful powerful anti-person contingent fighting against you.
I’m not sure what the solution is, especially when there’s such a high level of mistrust of experts right now. I can tell you that anybody who actually studies climate science comes to the same broad conclusions, but how is that supposed to convince you of anything unless you study climate science yourself? (And who has the time and money to do that properly?)
But it also matters on a more profound level because the bible is very clear that we will have to give account for every single thing we’ve said and done.
And how many of us are going to find ourselves in tears, discovering that what we thought was right was deeply wrong and really really hurt people?
How many of us really want to see each and every child who died because of money we spent on ourselves or carbon emissions or the myriad of ways a “normal” life of privileged American luxury can hurt people?
What will we say to the God who loves us deeply as he holds the many we hurt in his arms?
“are you sure?”
I flipped through the book trying to find the page to reference as I wrote this and wasn’t able. In particular, I’m not sure if “are you sure?” is an exact quote or a paraphrase.