As I’ve often noted, my favorite bookworm frequently inspires me. If you’re not reading The Bookworm Room as part of your daily effort at self-improvement and general knowledge intake, you’re missing one of America’s finest writers and thinkers. An excellent example of that intention was an article she wrote back on February 4, 2018 on the nature of evil. An excerpt:
So here are my questions for you: Is there some standard by which we can measure true evil so that we don’t make mistakes? When we reach the point of waging war, how do we know with sufficient certainty that we’re on the side of the angels and that our opponents are not, especially when children and teens end up in the line of fire?
My rubric of late for grappling with the question of evil has been ‘liberty.’ As I see it, on the continuum of human existence, the less liberty a person, organization, or nation is willing to allow, the closer that person, organization, or nation is to evil.
Even I can see, though, that liberty is a tenuous measure of true evil. European socialists severely diminished liberty, but didn’t torture or kill people as the hardcore communists or 1930s/1940s fascists did. Instead, helped along by America paying their defense costs during the Cold War, soft European socialism gave people fewer choices than Americans had, but also made sure people under their control had food, shelter, and at least minimal health care. Meanwhile, as Europeans loved pointing out before America’s Cold War sponsorship of European nations ran dry, homeless Americans were starving in the streets, without food, shelter, or medicine.
Evil exists everywhere, in nations like ours with, compared with the rest of the world, unparalleled liberty, and in nations that suppress it. It is, however, nations that actively suppress liberty that make the expression of evil more likely and widespread. It is nations with no rule of law, with rule by man and more particularly, a single man, that are inherently evil, that not only breed evil, but celebrate it as the highest expression of nationalism and the furtherance of “progress.” One can reasonably argue that socialist countries like Sweden are merely misguided, their intentions good, yet the rape, crime—including the proliferation of hand grenades(!)—social schism it’s supposed enlightened immigration policies have wrought are certainly a manifestation of evil, a proposition most raped or assaulted Swedish women may share. By refusing to acknowledge the existence of evil, but stubbornly believing all belief systems and cultures equal, the Swedes have brought a very predictable evil down on themselves. Even The New York Times, which originally criticized President Trump for daring to suggest something was rotten in the state of Sweden, recently admitted Sweden is riven by violence imported with its immigrants.
Similarly, Ronald Reagan was savaged for calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” a label proved, over and over, to be self-evident. Even today, Russia seeks to return to its glory days of empire, and thinks nothing of murdering thousands, seizing the territory of its neighbors and threatening global nuclear annihilation. Despite Putin’s willingness to murder annoying reporters, American journalists have always loved communists, until they suddenly discovered patriotism in using apparently non-existent collusion with Russia as a stick with which to bludgeon Donald Trump.
Perhaps the most obvious expression of national evil is seen in North Korea, where barbarity not seen for centuries is the stuff of daily life, death stalks the land, and life has value only in slavish obedience and service to the state.
And here’s another question while I’m at it: If a person does a bad thing, does it matter whether that person acted with good or bad intentions? Is a Jew less dead if the actor gloats about killing Jews versus a killer who honestly tells himself that he acted to save his innocent children from the Jewish menace?
I’m hampered by the fact that, while I’ve become a deist over the years, one hewing more to Jewish doctrine than Christian, I’m still not a religious person. That is, I do not live within the boundaries of a comprehensive, time-tested doctrine. Nor have I read great works of philosophy which, I’m sorry to say, bore me. All I do is look at my life (and my mistakes) and at the world around me. And while I know evil exists, I’m terribly afraid that I won’t recognize it when I see it or, perhaps even worse, that I’ll see it where I shouldn’t and commit a grave wrong against innocent people.
So, I’ll reiterate my questions and then leave it open for all of you: Is there some standard by which we can measure true evil so that we don’t make mistakes? How do we know with sufficient certainty to wage true, bloody war, that we’re on the side of the angels and that our opponents are not? If a person does a bad thing, does it matter whether that person acted with good or bad intentions?
Good questions. One is tempted to quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who in trying to define obscenity, in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), said:
I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.
The partially secular utility of religion is its provision of a moral code. Let us use Christianity as our example. The Ten Commandments provide a simple and unapologetic moral code. “Thou shalt not,” rather than “it’s a bad idea to,” or “it’s not inclusive to,” or “sustainability and equality demand.” If we’re wise, if we’re not swayed by evil, we reply: ”Right. Got it, Lord.”
Perhaps the best general guide is Matthew 7:16 (King James):
Ye shall know them by their fruits.
The essence of Christianity is love, to love God above all, and to love others more than oneself. It is also self-sacrifice, for there is no greater love than to give one’s life for friends (John 15:13). In this scripture, we see the value of life, and the importance placed upon it, reflected not only in our faith, but in the law of all civilized nations, hence the importance of the rule of law versus the rule of man.
But Bookworm’s questions remain. How do we tell if someone, or something, is truly evil? The result of individual actions may be evil, therefore we agree the act was evil. But everyone sins, and not every sin is inherently evil—or perhaps it is? Is every sin, no matter how inconsequential, evil, particularly if it is knowingly done? Theologically, there is no degree to sin, but practically, we recognize such degrees. A lie told to spare feelings is clearly not in the same category as a rape or murder done intentionally and with delight.
While it’s possible for one to be “born evil”—theology suggests as much—the more numerous apostles of evil become so by choice, by the exercise of free will. Most, thank the Lord, feel the urgings of evil, hear the seductive whispers, but choose to reject them. Unquestionably, upbringing and culture are involved. One may be born with a predisposition to evil, but outside unwilling demonic possession—and such things do occur–one must ultimately, consciously embrace it.
Those who plot to damage the rule of law, to impose the rule of men, border on evil. They are seduced—willingly to be sure—by its glamor and power, but its promise of moral and intellectual purity and superiority. To whatever degree they succeed in destroying liberty, they more fully embrace evil. When they begin to imprison, torture, and murder others, they have fully embraced it and have become evil.
But what about those that truly believe imposing socialism or communism are in mankind’s best interests (one would surely be justified in noting their willful ignorance of history, even that contemporaneously playing out before our eyes)? What about those honestly believing their political views are best for everyone, that those that don’t see things their way are stupid, malicious, racist, fascist, etc., even evil?
As long as such arguments, and the actions they spawn, are made within the limits of the rule of law, as long as they are within the boundaries of the Constitution, they aren’t evil, though they may indicate a desire for evil acts and ends, perhaps even a willingness to commit them. We may certainly harbor evil thoughts and desires, but the mark of a civilized man or woman is the ability to recognize such thoughts as wrong, and to willingly leave them in the subconscious. An Antifa dupe may consider doing evil, but until they choose to actually commit an evil act and actually do it, they have net yet crossed the line.
It is when anyone begins to harm others, even to kill them, to achieve their political ends—or for any other reason–that evil is clearly recognized, and must be immediately suppressed.
Monsters such as Ted Bundy are often used for political purposes. Dr. James Dobson of Focus On The Family, then an obsessive anti-porn crusader–suggested Bundy’s murders had their causation in pornography, and Bundy was only too glad to play Dobson. In reality, Bundy was a textbook sociopath, and pornography played no role in his savagery. The horror of that level of evil is people like Bundy commit horrible crimes because they like it. They truly enjoy it. They need no more motivation than that, and navel-gazing attempts to blame others, or society in general, serve only to delight them further and do nothing to suppress evil.
The horror is that for such people, there are commonly few or no warnings, few or no red flags, no easy way to know in advance what they intend to do. Such people are also possessed of a feral intelligence that allows them to remain below the radar, making it difficult to catch them. One may debate the source of that intelligence and the difficulty of catching such monsters, but coincidence is not involved.
The case of Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland killer, is instructive. We know relatively little about Cruz at this point, but enough to formulate tentative theories. Cruz did indeed provide red flags, and remarkably specific ones, including cruelty to animals, which is a recognized marker of a homicidal personality. What Cruz did is clearly evil. It was premeditated, not by any means done in the passion of a moment. There is substantial evidence Cruz planned—intended–to kill, though perhaps not particularly at Parkland, for many months, perhaps even more than a year. There is evidence Cruz stopped only because his rifle malfunctioned, and apparently unable to clear it, he abandoned the weapon and joined the crowd evacuating the building. Clearly, he would have killed more if he could, but did he intend to commit suicide? That he apparently had no coherent escape and evasion plan suggests it. We don’t know, and may never know, nor can we particularly trust anything people like Cruz say. Like Bundy, part of their pathology is delight in deceiving and playing others.
The best indicator we have of evil is the willingness and desire to unlawfully take the lives of others. Theologically, this is obvious. Our criminal law is inspired by theology, by the Judeo-Christian tradition, which recognizes murder as the capital crime. The law, inspired by theology, recognizes some killing as lawful, even necessary. Killing in legitimate self-defense—defending life—is clearly not murder. Taking a life by accident and/or negligence is likewise not murder. In such cases, because there was no evil intent, there was no murder, though in the latter cases, one may certainly be punished criminally, and suffer financial damage via civil suit.
A law-abiding person who carries a concealed handgun, despite the hysterical cries of those that would steal liberty, is not evil. Such people have no desire to harm others, though they train to do it effectively if necessary. They do so because they recognize the existence of evil and the fact one may encounter it anywhere at any time. Their intention is to preserve life—any life–against those that would unlawfully, immorally take it. This is the opposite of evil. They live within the rule of law and honor the social contract. Theirs is the way of altruism and self-sacrifice, of the willingness to lay down their life for a friend, even a friend they’ve not yet met.
Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Kim Jung Un, Fidel Castro, The Mad Mullahs of Iran, Vladimir Putin and any other dictator/politician willing to destroy liberty, and particularly to kill, is evil. Those that willingly carry out their orders are evil. Those that worship Satan and do his bidding are evil.
One would hope this disclaimer would not be necessary, but Donald Trump, who has done nothing unconstitutional and is working to restore the rule of law, is not evil. Those that voted for him in a fair, lawful election, are not evil. Those that brand him evil are too accepting of the urges and whispers of real evil, a dangerous state, not only for the soul, but for liberty.
Miecyslaw Kasprzyk, a Police rescuer of Jews during the Holocaust put it well:
Someone who does not know the difference between good and evil is worth nothing.