We have to accept that people can do things that look to us to be pure evil. Take the Terror in France in 1793, the Terror in Germany from 1933 to 1945, or the Terror now being inflicted by IS in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is the kind of pure evil drawn by Shakespeare in Othello in Iago and by Herman Melville in John Claggart in Billy Budd.
Most of us cannot comprehend how previously decent people could bring themselves to do such evil, but we know that it is wrong to dismiss the examples as problems that were inherently French, German, or Islamic. That would be to slip into the kind of labelling that underlies those evil ideologies and take us back to where we started.
Pure evil is all about in the book News of a kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is a factual account of a series of abductions of prominent figures in Colombia in an attempt by a drug lord, Pablo Escobar, to do a deal with the government to prevent their being extradited to the U S – which was handing out sentences of life plus more. Eighteen prominent people were abducted and held in appalling deprivation while negotiations went on. We know from the blurb and the author’s introduction that two hostages will die – both women. That disclosure leads to some urgency in the read.
The criminals who so cruelly hold these hostages have been leached of all humanity. They appear to attach no value at all to human life. It is as if the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount had never been uttered. They are at least as mindlessly cold as Himmler and Heydrich. They commonly stand over the hostages with a cocked machine gun saying that at the first hint of rescue the hostages will be shot. It is apparent that the guards do not put much value on their own life – they know it is short.
Hannah Arendt wrote a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil. She explained the sub-title as follows:
When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to the phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing could have been further 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. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realised what he was doing……He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is ‘banal’, and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace.
These observations caused lot of concern, but they derive from a firm intellectual integrity. Arendt had previously said to the same effect: ‘The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are terribly and terrifyingly normal.’ Eichmann was no devil or demon; he was just human, and the trouble for us is that he was ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’.
Those who do not accept that Eichmann was just human, and that there is a little of Eichmann in all of us, are seeking to impose some kind of grid or cattle pen over humanity and are at risk of falling into the error that fed the derangement of people like Stalin and Hitler.
We might here note the matter-of- fact assessment of the American historian R R Palmer on Carrier, the man who drowned priests by the boat load in the Vendée during the Revolution, and after being at first applauded, was later guillotined for what we would now describe as war crimes.
Carrier, it may safely be said, was a normal man with average sensibilities, with no unusual intelligence or strength of character, driven wild by opposition, turning ruthless because ruthlessness seemed to be the easiest way of solving a difficult problem.
As Arendt said, ‘it was sheer thoughtlessness…that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.’
Fouché despatched groups of prisoners at Lyons with cannonades of grapeshot fired at close range against people who had been asked to dig their own graves. The merely wounded were finished off with sabres. The killers could loot the bodies. When the tide turned, Fouché lay low for a while, but then he was a key player in bringing down Robespierre, and Napoleon would make him chief of police. Fouché was a serial survivor, a former seminarian who had no conscience at all.
We see a lot of banality in News of Kidnapping. One hostage is taken with horrifying violence and many attempts to cover the tracks of the criminals – he then becomes aware that his captors are in a hurry because they want to go downstairs to watch the big local footy derby on TV. This they do leaving him with a bottle of grog to listen to the game on the radio (which he then does).
While holding cocked weapons on their hostages, the guards have parties on saints’ days and birthdays and they are full of devotion for the Marian cult and ritual and superstition that pervades Latin America. But when it comes time for a hostage to be executed, a sixty year old former beauty queen, someone fires six shots into her head at close range. There are twelve entry and exit wounds. Someone steals her shoes before the police arrive. What kind of human being borne of a woman could do that to another human being? How deranged and conscienceless can our human psyche get? Was the killer jealous of her looks and finery?
Elsewhere, I said the following about Claggart (and Captain Vere and Billy Budd):
Since Claggart is the strongest character in the triangle, he has attracted the strongest writing in the book, the opera and the film. He is in the tradition of Iago:
… if Cassio do remain,
He hath a daily beauty in his life
That makes me ugly.
That could be word for word Claggart on Billy. Shakespeare defined a similar envy in one of the assassins of Caesar.
… Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look
He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.
He is a great observer and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men.
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit.
That could be moved to smile at anything.
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
While they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous.
Again, Claggart, chapter and verse. If you hand those lines around in a large office and ask people whom they are reminded of, they will invariably indicate the resident smiling assassin.
In a narrative manner, but with a matter-of-fact investigative tone, Melville devotes lines of a very high order to Claggart. The following words might have been applied to Heinrich Himmler:
… The Master-at-Arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd. And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that cynic disdain – disdain of innocence. To be nothing more than innocent! … A nature like Claggart’s surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible act out to the end the part allotted to it.
And then there is this:
The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts.
We are left with the mystery of Hannah Arendt or what Carlyle referred to near the end of The French Revolution as ‘the madness that lies in the hearts of men.’ There may not be all that much between us and the primeval slime.