Review Essay: Reflecting On Evil

Evil is a concept with a hazy definition. Admittedly I use the term without having a confident grasp of what behavior constitutes evil. Does evil mean very or extremely bad behavior? Yes, but not precisely because evil, I conclude, connotes conduct that is not relative to other behaviors. It goes beyond them and touches the nether regions of the absolute. It transcends the merely bad and shades into ineffability. It conveys an aura of mystery. In this sense, evil can claim to be a religious concept, residing in a realm beyond words. It is outside of normal conduct, but, tragically, not beyond human possibility. In human affairs, large and small, it has been all too evident.

I would conclude that to be evil, an act needs to be not merely bad but perverse. By perversity, I mean the willful intention to bring harm and hurt to others for its own sake. If each person had his or her own pear tree so that no one would want for pears, there would still be a minority of persons who would want the pear going into your mouth simply because it was going into your mouth. The gratification that would come from the deprivation of others would supersede the fulfillment of having one’s own. The act would be irrational from a practical standpoint. By my definition, it would be perverse, but would not necessarily rise to the level of evil. To be evil the perversity would need to be conjoined with cruelty. The propensity for cruelty, as we know too well, abounds in human experience. It was the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, writing in the sixteenth century, who observed, “nature herself, I fear, attaches to man some instinct for inhumanity.” Indeed.

Logos Journal - Reflecting on Evil 2

Zone of Interest (2023)

History’s most salient example of evil is arguably the Holocaust and the Nazi campaign that had as its aim the organized extermination of the world’s entire Jewish population. It can be thought of this way: mid-twentieth century Germany produced civilization’s most highly educated populace, known for its refinement of reason, science, and advanced technology, the land of Goethe and Beethoven. German culture exemplified the greatest flourishing of the values of the Enlightenment. And what was the consequence of German rationality, technology, and science? What was its end? What was the product of this sophisticated and highly cultured and educated populace? It was employed in the service of building a vast, complex, network of killing factories capable of exterminating the largest number of human beings with the greatest efficiency at the least cost. Values we associate with humanity at its refined best were inverted to serve the purpose of exterminating an entire people for purposes that eluded practical utility. The killing in the concentration camps continued even as it was clear to the Nazis that they were losing the war, even when the resources used for the wholesale murder of Jews could have been used for the purposes of military defense. It is hard to identify a more apt example of evil. As I see it, human flourishing is the end of human existence. The Holocaust was the absolute and total negation of humanity and humanistic values. Perverse. Cruel. Unfathomably evil.

I am a student of human rights. It’s a field that focuses on the dark underside of human behavior. With all my reading through human rights literature, from academic treatises to Amnesty International reports documenting torture in excruciating detail, I remain perplexed at the scope of the human capacity for cruelty. I am most at a loss when it comes to understanding genocide. My moral imagination allows me to understand how a person can be so overcome by rage that he can murder another human being. What I cannot understand is how multitudes of people can rise up to murder thousands, tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of their fellow human beings. Often the victims are neighbors whom they knew; people who grew up alongside the perpetrators. They shared the same society and had life experiences in common. And this slaughter can take place without a shred of bad conscience.

Contemporary genocide studies have been able to analyze the political, economic, and historical contexts out of which genocide can arise. Genocide watch groups follow and analyze the signs of genocide as it emerges in the hope that the international community can intercede to prevent it before it breaks out in full force.

Scholars have recognized factors that enable genocide to emerge. There are those that are structural and external to individual persons, such as perceived economic inequality and government-led inequality. There may also be deep-reaching historical resentment. Other factors are internal to the psychology of individuals and enable men and women to accept and assimilate the ideas and ideologies to which they are exposed.

The perplexing question is how normal people, who have been raised within the moral frameworks of society, can abandon moral restraint altogether and become evil. Under normal circumstances, most people have an innate sense of empathy. We can sense that just as we do not want to be objects of pain other human beings do not as well. To varying degrees, we can sense their experience as our own. Our commonality as human beings fosters this moral insight and can thereby foster feelings of compassion, kindness, decency, or at least tolerance. For genocide to take place, this empathetic capacity needs to be thoroughly overcome and erased.

How does this happen?

I recall the famous Stanley Milgram experiments of the 1960s. The experiments were devised to test a person’s obedience to authority and were inspired by the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. They were frightening in their results. Milgram subjected normal individuals who volunteered to administer painful electric shocks to people unknown to them on the orders of a delegated authority. The shocks were fake and their recipients were actors who feigned pain as the authority progressively ordered an increase in the voltage. The experiment found, unexpectedly, that a very high proportion of subjects would fully obey the instructions, with every participant going up to 300 volts, and 65% going up to the full 450 volts, an intensity that would have been fatal had the shocks not been fake. Though Milgram’s initial experiment involved 40 men, the experiment was replicated around the world for many years, with the adjustment of several variables, including the participation of women. The results across the board remained essentially the same.

Milgram’s work was critiqued as not adequately explaining the behavior of the perpetrators of the Holocaust in that the experiment’s participants were told that they would not be causing any lasting harm to the experiment’s “learners.” Also, the participants were not motivated by hate or racism, whereas the perpetrators of the Holocaust had long been socialized to devalue the personhood of Jews. Nevertheless, what seems evident and germane was the ability of the participants to displace responsibility for their actions onto the authority, which negated their own sense of responsibility and the workings of moral conscience.

But what is a consistent and necessary factor in the enabling of genocide is the process of dehumanization. It is emotionally difficult to kill another being. What facilitates the action is convincing the potential perpetrators that those they are about to kill are less than human.

Genocide scholar James Waller, in his book Becoming Evil, wrote:

“In cases of mass killing and genocide, the dehumanization of victims involves categorizing a group as inhuman either by using categories of subhuman creatures (that is, animals) or by using categories of negatively evaluated unhuman creatures (such as demons and monsters). Dehumanization is most likely when the target group can be readily identified as a separate category of people belonging to a distinct racial, ethnic, religious, or political group that the perpetrators regard as inferior or threatening. These isolated subgroups are stigmatized as alien and memories of their past misdeeds, real or imaginary, are activated by the dominant political or social group depriving victims of their identity by defining them entirely by a category to which they belong. The second deprivation is excluding this category from the community of the human family. Once exclusion from the human family is obtained, exclusion from the moral universe of obligation easily follows.”

“For example, the groundwork for the moral exclusion of Jewish victims was laid in the centuries preceding the Holocaust: Jews were regarded as aliens who were on the remote fringes of Christian Europe’s universe of moral obligation. The historical stigmatization and exclusion of the Jews meant that the traditions, habits, images, and vocabularies for extreme dehumanization were already well established. The centuries-old image of the vile and diabolical Jew was woven into the fabric of German, and European, culture. The deluge of racist and antisemitic propaganda ribboning throughout German society during the rise of Nazism was thus profoundly effective in placing, and keeping, the Jews entirely outside the realm of moral obligation for perpetrators.”

“Regarding victims as outside our moral universe of obligation impacts how we view and describe them. Perpetrators often disparage their victims, thus helping to justify their hurtful behavior. A common form of disparagement is the use of language to redefine the victims so they will be seen as warranting the aggression.”

“Mass killing and genocide are replete with examples of the linguistic dehumanization of victims. In the Holocaust, for instance, the Nazis redefined Jews as ‘bacilli,’ ‘parasites,’ “vermin,’ ‘demons, ‘syphilis,’ ‘cancer,’ ‘excrement,’ ‘filth,’ ‘tuberculosis,’ and ‘plague.’”

It was the famed historian and philosopher, Hannah Arendt who wrote that dehumanization is a mutual process. By dehumanizing “the other,” the agents themselves become detached from the capacity to recognize their common identities as members of the same species. Compassion and empathy disappear. She noted in The Origins of Totalitarianism,  “The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.”

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Zone of Interest (2023)

The phenomenon of dehumanization is captured in an extraordinary film The Zone of Interest by the British-Jewish producer Jonathan Glazer. The film is discussed in a feature article in “The New York Times” Magazine of December 24th under the title “Filming the Unfilmable.” The article’s theme centers on the difficulty of depicting the Holocaust on film, and the debate that surrounds its depiction. The piece notes that the Holocaust was not visually presented until the 1970s. The writer attributes that omission to the guilt felt by European nations which either perpetrated the Holocaust or contributed to it. This doesn’t explain the absence of its portrayal in the United States, and I have long attributed the silence about the Holocaust to a collective trauma. Time needed to pass before it could enter into popular consciousness. The breakthrough event in the late 1970s was an NBC miniseries “Holocaust” starring Meryl Streep. I recall the publicity surrounding it, and I came away feeling that the production was not worth the conversation and controversy it aroused. The high-water mark of cinematic depiction came 15 years later with Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” which, as the article notes, was seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world.

The debate behind these productions and others that followed is whether the Holocaust can be visually depicted at all, and if so how. Elie Wiesel reflected the view of exceptionalists. In short, the Holocaust is unique. Its embrace of evil transcends understanding and efforts to depict it is sacrilegious. I respectfully dissent from this view on the grounds that if the Holocaust is beyond comprehension then there is nothing we can learn from it. More plausible, I hold, is that the Holocaust was a unique occurrence in significant respects, but bears elements in common with other genocides and mass atrocities.

This leaves open the question of visual rendering, and here I concur with the problem. In its enormity, organized cruelty, and evil unparalleled in scope and efficiency, the Holocaust commands careful treatment. The problem with the depiction of the concentration camps, gas chambers, and crematoria, is that no such presentation can successfully convey the appropriate message. Portraying these horrors will not do it justice, in that movie-watchers have long experienced what can be called a brutalizing effect. Cinema has been committed to pushing the envelope on violence so that nothing can shock any longer. To add the Holocaust to this endeavor is to relativize it, if not render it jejune.

The article cites a British philosopher Gillian Rose who argued that we should not be protected from our own capacity for barbarism. For her, as the article notes, “Schindler’s List sentimentalizes the Jewish victims and keeps Nazi perpetrators at arm’s length [and as such] was really just a piece of misty-eyed evasion.” The piece goes on to say that a richer work “would present the Holocaust as something legibly human and goad the viewer into asking an uncomfortable question: Could I have participated in this?”

“The Zone of Interest” comes close to fulfilling Rose’s criterion. The Times article calls it an “astonishing” film. My view is that it is both gripping and brilliant. The film, which is in German with English subtitles, depicts a German family in the 1940s and is drawn from history. Rudolf Höss, his wife, Hedwig, and their five young children comprise the household. They live in a comfortable home, maintained with the assistance of servants. Adjoining the home is a spacious garden, replete with well-manicured flowers, a wading pool, walkways, and neatly trimmed grass. At the rear of the well-ordered garden is a high wall. All is very ordinary, except that the garden wall abuts the Auschwitz concentration camp. The killing factory is immediately next door. All the viewer sees of Auschwitz is the higher wall of the compound, a watchtower, rows of tautly stretched barbed wire, and chimneys in the far distance continuously spewing smoke into the sky by day and flames burning atop the chimneys by night.

The brilliance of “The Zone of Interest” is that it portrays the Holocaust without portraying it. The film-watcher never sees what transpires on the other side of the wall. It is unseen, but powerfully left to the imagination. There are hints. There are the sounds of occasional gunshots, human screams, a dog barking. In one scene, the oldest son is in bed playing with gold teeth. In another, Hedwig tries on a coat, no doubt having been taken from a concentration camp victim. In a pocket, she discovers a stick of lipstick, which she applies. Rudolf is fishing in the middle of a river on an undeveloped piece of their property. He is distracted by a piece of human remains that is floating down the stream. Startled, he hurriedly removes his children from the river, takes them home, and washes them clean in the bathtub. These cinematic events are episodic, not continuous.

The gripping horror of the film is the normalcy, indeed tedium, of family life. Rudolf dutifully goes off to work each morning, while Hedwig cares for the children. They have dinner together. They celebrate birthday parties and stroll in the garden with ease and delight. There is a festive event for children centered on the kiddy pool. Rudolf and Hedwig engage in practical conversation, chatter, and banter.

Rudolf, who was a historical figure, was the long-serving chief commandant of Auschwitz. But no sense of the inhumanity of what is transpiring immediately next door is ever mentioned. It is absent from their consciousness or so deeply repressed that it is never manifested. In an early scene, Rudolf is discussing with fellow Nazis the design of more efficient crematoria. They might as well be planning the engineering of a highway overpass or a more efficient household appliance.

Essentially nothing happens in this family. The high point of the film comes when Rudolf announces that he is being transferred to a camp closer to Berlin, Hedwig refuses to go, emphatically declaring that she likes it too much where she is. Her life is idyllic. In her argument with her husband, she proclaims, “They’d have to drag me out of here…Everything the Fuhrer said about how to live is how we do. Go east. Living space. This is our living space.”

Höss leaves, but is recalled to oversee the annihilation of 400,000 Hungarian Jews in what was named Operation Höss in his honor.

Giles Harvey, the author of the Times piece concludes,

“It’s by withholding violence that he [i.e Glazer] shocks us into recognizing just how much it fascinates us. The effect, at least on me, was a shaming appreciation of complicity. As you watch the film you slowly realize what Glazer is suggesting: that in its ways, the Höss house, where ordinary life goes unconscionably on, is as much a scene of horror as the camp itself. Unlike the abjection unfolding ‘over there,’ this kind of contended obliviousness has rarely been portrayed on screen. The average viewer is unlikely to see himself in the figure of a death camp C.E.O., but a family that sleepwalks through their own lives, heedless of the suffering that surrounds them, may feel closer to home. To a greater or lesser extent, we all ignore and deny the pain of others, including – perhaps especially – when that pain is inflicted by our own governments on designated enemies.”

“The Zone of Interest” is a graphic and unusually compelling exemplification on screen of what Hannah Arendt famously identified as the banality of evil. The family portrayed in the film have become obedient, dehumanized, cogs in the vast bureaucratic machinery of the Nazi regime. They are unmindful of the unspeakable cruelty, pain, and suffering transpiring literally at their doorstep.

I could not watch this film without reflecting on the current political moment we are experiencing here and now. I am not drawing false equivalences; we are not about to experience genocide within our borders. But cruelty and evil are on a continuum, and there are unsettling similarities between the tyranny of Nazism and the politics instigated by Donald Trump and his minions. The mind works by association and draws connections. The associations should put us on high alert. Trump’s referring to his enemies as “vermin,” and classes of immigrants as “animals.” The talk of constructing vast deportation camps. His reduction of our vast, complex, society to “us” and “them,” His narcissistic identity as a cult leader who demands loyalty above all to himself. His total lack of regard and respect for democratic values, his commitment to autocracy, and his love of tyrants. And his creation of an alternative reality based on lies, fabricated conspiracies, and its ability to ensnare the credibility of tens of millions of Americans. His rhetoric and Trump’s tactics have been used by past tyrants to perpetuate and inspire unspeakable horror.

We need to reaffirm humanity and promote it as our supreme value wherever necessary in our political life, our love of democracy, in the defense of the rights and welfare of all, and in our own souls.


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Logos Journal - Scalia Myths

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