Explaining evil acts

By Saad Hafiz:

While al Qaeda and the young men shooting up the school both seek to create terror in others, only the evil acts of the first are labelled as actual terrorism

Trying to explain the evil acts that kill innocents daily round the globe like the one that killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, USA, is on a par with explaining how the universe was formed. There may be no greater expression of evil than the murder of children in their classrooms. Mary O’Toole, who worked for 15 years in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit where she studied psychopaths and helped capture killers, described Adam Lanza’s well-planned shooting rampage as “callousness in the extreme” and “off the charts”.

The men who resort to these actions are not branded as terrorists and are dismissed as loners and people who have been picked on and bullied. There is generally no political or religious motivation seen in their actions, just revenge for perceived injustices. It is explained that their acts are not intended to cause terror, but are criminal acts to extract vengeance, but the same could be said about the 9/11 acts too. Considering that every ‘school shooter’ was doing the shooting to create fear in others (power in self), the motivation in each case was exactly to create ‘terror in others to accomplish a personal goal’. This is ‘terrorism’. But the question devolves to how governments define terrorism. While al Qaeda and the young men shooting up the school both seek to create terror in others, only the evil acts of the first are labelled as actual terrorism.

As much as humans have tried for millennia to prevent evil acts, we have not succeeded. In the modern era, President Woodrow Wilson believed his League of Nations would serve as a means of avoiding any repetition of the bloodshed of the First World War. The League would usher in peace on Earth, if not goodwill towards all men. The United Nations followed that aborted experiment. The UN has been equally unsuccessful in preventing the slaughter of innocents and other evil acts. The world has seen more than a century of political violence, from the Irish Nationalists to the national struggles of the Jews, the Palestinians and the Algerians. The Marxist-inspired violence of the “guilty white kids” of Italy’s Red Brigades and Germany’s Red Army Faction, and the global rage of today’s Islamists can be added to the list. Whether it is in American schools, terrorism in South Asia or the 9/11 terrorist attacks, evil is spreading rapidly around the world.

The natural human reaction after extending sympathy and prayers for the victims and their families is to ask what actions might have been taken to prevent the next carnage and the slaughter. The obvious solution is to take the guns and bombs away from potential assassins and terrorists and keep them in the custody of the state. Even if that were possible and doing nothing not being an option, it is unclear whether the enforcement of tough gun laws or pre-emptive drone strikes can prevent a man or group with evil intent from carrying out their heinous acts.

Political leaders not usually identified with spiritual concepts are making use of the word ‘evil’ in accurately describing the global murder and mayhem. We hear calls for prayers from politicians committed to the separation of church and state. In calling for prayers, officials have taken an important first step in combating evil, but a larger question should be asked. Perhaps theologians, pastors, priests and rabbis are the ones to ask it, but permit me a suggestion.

Evil is a ‘pre-existing condition’ whether the perpetrator is Lanza or Kasab or an anonymous suicide bomber. In some individuals, it is controlled by an inner compass, or by laws and cultural constraints. When it is not, we get tragedies like Sandy Hook, Mumbai and the daily suicide bombings and sectarian murders in Pakistan. We get what we do not understand and cannot begin to comprehend. It is meaningless to the victims like young Noah Pozner, Sheetal Yadav and Malala Yousafzai and countless others whether these evil acts are labelled as terrorism or not.

The way to deal with evil is first to admit that it exists and that we all possess the potential for it. We do not become evil by what we do, but because of who we are. We are human beings, not God. We are not ‘basically good’, as some claim, we are imperfect and fall far short of any true standard of perfection. If there is a source of evil, is there also a source of good? And if there is, has that source for good been offended by all of the accumulated evil we are piling up, affording it an upper hand? This is not oration, just a thought.

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