Evil is the perversion of human perfection; it is the mind turned in on itself to hurt, harm, demean, and destroy other people, along
with their possessions and their most valued symbols.
If we take Good as the natural human condition, then
Evil is its antithesis, and Heroism its opposing
force. But that triad represents multiple facets of
human nature. This terrorist attack on U.S.
sovereignty represents a new level of creative evil in
which human intellect serves the basest motives of
violence 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 any
individual or group would engage in such evil deeds.
But calling it "senseless," "mindless," "insane," or
the work of "madmen" is wrong for two reasons. It
fails to adopt the perspective of the perpetrators, as
an act with a clearly defined purpose that we must
understand in order to challenge it most effectively.
And such negative labeling also lulls us into thinking
it is random, not comparable to anything we do
understand, and making us disrespectful of the high
level of reasoned intellect behind these deeds,
however distorted or diabolical it may be.
Constructive efforts at preventing future similar
acts of international violence best begin with
attempts to understand not only the Who question, but
the What question as well. Our national leaders will
seek out those who orchestrated this destructive
attack against our nation and eventually bring them to
justice. But even if the identifiable terrorist
leaders were to be eliminated, would that stop future
terrorism? It is unlikely, unless we know what are the
root causes of the hatred against America; unless the
ideological, political, and social bases of the
mentalities of the next generation of potential
terrorists are more fully appreciated and efforts to
change them are engaged.
Evil has always existed in many forms and will
continue to flourish in different ways in different
places. There are individuals we acknowledge
as 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 new
violence. It is well for us now to go beyond our
tendency to focus on dispositional evil as a peculiar
property or characteristic of despicable particular
individuals. Instead, we might consider focusing on
the determinants of evil in order to
to identify the breeding grounds that can seduce even good people to
become perpetrators of evil.
Even while acknowledging
our individual and national need for retribution and
punishment of the leaders of this terrorist attacks,
we must realize that without altering the fundamental
sources of anti-American and anti-democratic beliefs
and values in other nations, new replacements will
emerge for each tyrant leader we punish or kill.
Much psychological research reveals the ease with
which ordinary people can be recruited to engage in
harmful behaviors against their fellow human beings. In one
classic study by Stanley Milgram, the majority of
ordinary American citizens who participated in it
blindly obeyed an authority figure and administered
what they believed were painful, even lethal shocks to
Albert Bandura showed that intelligent
students were willing to be extremely aggressive
toward other groups of students merely because they
were characterized with the dehumanizing label of
being just "like animals."
In another demonstration from my own laboratory, normal college students recruited to role-play prison guards became their
roles in a matter of days, behaving with escalating
violence and sadism toward their prisoners--other
college students. We know that a cult leader, Jim
Jones, reverend of Peoples Temple, was able to program
his followers to commit suicide, or to kill one
another on his command, and more than 900 American
citizens did so in the jungles of Guyana.
Research by John Steiner (an Auschwitz survivor) indicates that
most Nazi concentration camp guards were "ordinary
men" before and following their years of perpetrating
evil. Many more examples could be culled to illustrate
reasons why we should not demonize these terrorists as
an alien breed. Instead, we should focus on a better
understanding of the mind control tactics and
strategies that might make even good people engage in
evil deeds at some time in their lives, and that might
recruit new generations of impoverished young people
into lives of terrorism.
We need also to acknowledge
openly "the dark side of religion" in terms of how
religiously based value systems can be perverted to
justify and reward the most horrendous of human deeds.
Unbridled evil has been carried out in the name of
religion and condoned in the name of God over the
centuries by most nations of the world, and still is.
The efforts of our military forces in tracking down
and destroying the terrorist leaders has a collateral
risk. It models revenge and retaliation at a national
level which can become a stimulus for individual
hostility toward innocent citizens in our own country
whose ethnicity, religion, or appearance might be
similar to those of the terrorists.
Research by Dane
Archer shows that homicide rates increase dramatically
following all wars, the same for victor or loser
nations, presumably because individuals learn to use
violent means of conflict resolution as had been
sanctioned by their national leaders. We cannot allow
that transfer of hostility to develop, because it
fuels the cycle of violence started by the terrorists.
Terrorists create terror; terror creates fear and
anger; fear and anger create aggression, and
aggression against citizens of different ethnicity or
religion creates racism and, in turn, new forms of
We must individually and collectively refuse to
adopt the terrorists' devaluing of human life. If we
do not, and we yield to the quiet rage of hatred that
their vile deeds have generated in most of us, then
our desire to destroy them at all costs will ally us
more with the forces of evil than of good.
|If we...yield to the quiet rage of hatred that their vile deeds have generated in most of us, then our desire to destroy them at all costs will ally us more with the forces of evil than of good.|
We have seen the enemy--do not let it become us. We have
also witnessed the tremendous outpouring of positive
emotions, good will and heroic deeds of Americans in
response to this tragedy. We are giving money and
blood, selflessly donating our skills and energies,
and even sacrificing our lives to help others.
This tragedy may in the long run help to nurture the best in us all, to rekindle civic engagement, to connect each more fully with family, friends and neighbors, to put community and nation before self interests. It may give us new reasons to be genuinely proud to be Americans who oppose evil with tolerance, compassion, justice, and love.