Monday, May 16, 2011

The Question of Evil

In the wake of the announcement of Osama bin Laden's killing there has been much discussion on some internet boards of good and evil, just and unjust, right and wrong. I personally have been a little stunned by those who consider his death an outrage considering that he was responsible for thousands of deaths far beyond those of the people killed on September 11, 2001. When I saw the hundreds of people gathered in Times Square cheering his death I had a mixed reaction, I was a little shocked by anyone's death being cheered but I also understood the relief that a lot of people felt that the potential for terror that he represented was finally removed.

Over the past couple of weeks I've been in some online discussions about this and it is enlightening. There are many people who are just plain thrilled that a monster has been removed from the earth. There are many people who, while not rejoicing in the need to have done this, are relieved that one less monster exists. And then there are the people who are horrified at the “brutality” of the raid on the bin Laden compound and the manner in which he was killed. I'll be honest, I have a hard time understanding these people.

The Amish believe that if violence is to be stopped it has to be stopped on a one by one basis, that each individual has to make the commitment to stop violence. It is an admirable position but one that is hard to advance in a world in which people live with constant awareness of inequality. I have long been of the opinion that the root of much evil is the feeling that some “other” has something we want but cannot have – freedom, money, sex, prestige, acclaim, respect. Our country was founded on the concept that everyone is created equal and, while it may be true that we are created equal, it is not true that we are all start out equal because we just simply do not. Some people are born with more money, better looks, into more loving families, etc. etc. etc. So, as long as inequality exists there will be rivalry and as long as there is rivalry there will be discontent and competition and discontent and competition always seem to end in violence. Is that evil? No, not really but the end result of violence often appears to be evil.

As a writer these questions fascinate me because most every writer is faced with creating evil characters – or at least bad characters – and in order to make them believable we have to be mindful of how they got that way. Some years back John Ronan interviewed me for his television program The Writer's Block and he said that in my writing there did not appear to be any really bad or evil characters. This was before I had written Each Angel Burns and introduced my readers to Sinclair Delacourt. I told John that I didn't think there were many really bad people in the world but, of course, that is a cavalier statement. There may not be people who are inherently bad but there are a lot of people whose personal circumstances have filled them with such anger, bitterness, rage, resentment – call it what you will – that they act in evil ways trying to assuage their personal hurt.

Yesterday I watched a movie called The Chamber in which Gene Hackman plays one of the most purely dislikeable characters I've ever encountered onscreen. Gene Hackman is so good at playing roles like that. This guy was a Mississippi Klansman convicted of multiple bombings and the murder of two small children in one bombing. As I was watching the movie, and the defense his grandson/lawyer (played by Chris O'Donnell) constructed – generations of hate passed down from from father to son – I thought of how someone becomes so motivated by hate. How does a character like this man, or a real person like Osama bin Laden --- or a Fred Phelps or a Terry Jones? Become so filled with hate that they don't care about the lives of innocents who die because of their actions?

Then there is the irresponsibility of incitement. Bill O'Reilly rails against “Tiller the Baby-killer” and someone decides to assassinate Dr. George Tiller. Sarah Palin tells her followers “don't retreat, reload” and paints cross-hairs on a map of the people she targets for defeat -- and someone takes a gun to one of those cross-haired regions and opens fire. Where does it all end? We know what evil is, we know why it happens, we know what the outcome will be, and yet that damning urge to act out of our own sense of being more entitled to something than the next guy keeps the hate spiraling.

There are no easy answers, there never were, there never will be. As long as there are those who act in evil ways, there will be those who are relieved to see them gone. As writers we will observe these things and try to understand – and as fellow humans we might try doing the same.

Thanks for reading.

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