Evil is the perversion of human perfection; it is the mind turned in on itself to hurt, harm, demean, and destroy other people, alongwith their possessions and their most valued symbols.If we take Good as the natural human condition, thenEvil is its antithesis, and Heroism its opposingforce. But that triad represents multiple facets ofhuman nature. This terrorist attack on U.S.sovereignty represents a new level of creative evil inwhich human intellect serves the basest motives ofviolence and destruction.
It is imperative not to underestimate the power and catalytic force of this new enemy, and we have to change our perception of this attack as "senseless violence." Of course, this tragic destruction of lives and property does not make sense to us because it is incomprehensible that anyindividual or group would engage in such evil deeds.But calling it "senseless," "mindless," "insane," orthe work of "madmen" is wrong for two reasons. Itfails to adopt the perspective of the perpetrators, asan act with a clearly defined purpose that we mustunderstand in order to challenge it most effectively.And such negative labeling also lulls us into thinkingit is random, not comparable to anything we dounderstand, and making us disrespectful of the highlevel of reasoned intellect behind these deeds,however distorted or diabolical it may be.
Constructive efforts at preventing future similaracts of international violence best begin withattempts to understand not only the Who question, butthe What question as well. Our national leaders willseek out those who orchestrated this destructiveattack against our nation and eventually bring them tojustice. But even if the identifiable terroristleaders were to be eliminated, would that stop futureterrorism? It is unlikely, unless we know what are theroot causes of the hatred against America; unless theideological, political, and social bases of thementalities of the next generation of potentialterrorists are more fully appreciated and efforts tochange them are engaged.
Evil has always existed in many forms and willcontinue to flourish in different ways in differentplaces. There are individuals we acknowledgeas embodying evil, just as Lucifer and Satan do--Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and other national tyrants. They are all dead, yet evil flourishes throughout the world with nameless conductors orchestrating ever newviolence. It is well for us now to go beyond ourtendency to focus on dispositional evil as a peculiarproperty or characteristic of despicable particularindividuals. Instead, we might consider focusing onthe determinants of evil in order toto identify the breeding grounds that can seduce even good people tobecome perpetrators of evil.
Even while acknowledgingour individual and national need for retribution andpunishment of the leaders of this terrorist attacks,we must realize that without altering the fundamentalsources of anti-American and anti-democratic beliefsand values in other nations, new replacements willemerge for each tyrant leader we punish or kill.
Much psychological research reveals the ease withwhich ordinary people can be recruited to engage inharmful behaviors against their fellow human beings. In oneclassic study by Stanley Milgram, the majority ofordinary American citizens who participated in itblindly obeyed an authority figure and administeredwhat they believed were painful, even lethal shocks toa stranger.
Albert Bandura showed that intelligentstudents were willing to be extremely aggressivetoward other groups of students merely because theywere characterized with the dehumanizing label ofbeing just "like animals."
In another demonstration from my own laboratory, normal college students recruited to role-play prison guards became theirroles in a matter of days, behaving with escalatingviolence and sadism toward their prisoners--othercollege students. We know that a cult leader, JimJones, reverend of Peoples Temple, was able to programhis followers to commit suicide, or to kill oneanother on his command, and more than 900 Americancitizens did so in the jungles of Guyana.
Research by John Steiner (an Auschwitz survivor) indicates thatmost Nazi concentration camp guards were "ordinarymen" before and following their years of perpetratingevil. Many more examples could be culled to illustratereasons why we should not demonize these terrorists asan alien breed. Instead, we should focus on a betterunderstanding of the mind control tactics andstrategies that might make even good people engage inevil deeds at some time in their lives, and that mightrecruit new generations of impoverished young peopleinto lives of terrorism.