Some days the news seems to come at you in a solid wall of sickening tales of human behaviour.
I don’t believe in evil, although I do believe in evil acts. I don’t believe a fully-functioning and mentally sound human-being would ever knowingly commit an evil act; therefore, if someone commits a truly evil act, they are, by my definition, mentally unwell and should be treated with compassion and care, not hatred and revenge. For that reason, everyday tales of crimes do not affect me overly. I feel for the victim, of course, but I also feel for the person who has committed that act and I find myself wondering what set of circumstances brought them to that point in their life.
I am always acutely aware that, however much we may like to pretend that criminals are different to us, we really are all very similar indeed and, however apparently broken such a person may appear to be, had I experienced the same things they did and/or carried the same sets of genes they do, I would almost certainly have reacted the same way. It’s all down to the luck of the draw and there but for the grace of [insert spiritual reference of choice here] go I.
The human capacity to commit evil acts is close to the surface in all of us. If you disagree with me, ask yourself what it is over our history that has made so many apparently normal, kind and healthy men (and some women) carry out such awful atrocities in wars all over the world. I could list many examples, but the most obvious is, of course, the Jewish holocaust.
The acts that really scare me though, the ones that bring the bile to the back of my throat, are the ones committed by institutions in the name of progress. Man-made edifices built specifically to ensure that no one person feels the weight of the crimes they are committing or the need to take responsibility and change. The holocaust is an example of that but today I find myself battered by a storm of examples of such human failure.
First, of course, is the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. As tales of endemic corner-cutting by an organisation with a rotten culture continue to float to the surface, like the oil released, they are interspersed with devastating tales of pain and suffering inflicted on the wildlife and human inhabitants of the gulf region that go back 50 years. I am sure that, if you asked any of BP’s executives whether they are the kind of person capable of directly causing so many deaths and so much destruction, they would be horrified: “Of course not! I’m a nice person, a kind person, I have two children that I love, I remember to buy my wife (or husband) flowers. I recycle!”. I’m sure they are, and they do and I am certain that will be scant comfort to the families of the oil workers killed in the explosion or those left behind after their loved ones died from cancer caused by pollution or to the fishermen whose livelihoods have been destroyed and which will not recover for years, possibly decades.
Second in today’s litany of the worst of human nature is the upcoming execution by firing squad of Ronnie Lee Gardner in Utah. It isn’t the execution that I find particularly disturbing, nor the choice of method, although as a strong opponent of the death penalty both of those things upset me, the devil here is in the detail. The five men who will make up the firing squad will be policemen drawn by ballot from a pool of volunteers. Afterwards, they will be awarded a commemorative coin for going above and beyond the call of duty. Not only were five men willing to commit an act of cold-blooded murder, so many people were willing to do it they had to hold a ballot. And, instead of being castigated for being willing to take a life so casually, these men will be awarded a medal. I do not consider the anonymous shooting of a man tied to a chair with a hood over his face to be an act above and beyond the call of duty and a man’s life, even one who has committed a terrible crime, should be worth more than 5 commemorative coins.
Finally, I have saved the worst for last. In Cornell university, a surgeon has been carrying out surgery to reduce clitoris size in little girls who’re deemed to have abnormal genitalia; a stupid label that I could write a long post refuting alone. This is a disgusting practice and one that I believe has been correctly labelled “genital mutilation” by those who have already covered this story in more depth than I intend to here. As with everyone who has read this story, however, it isn’t the surgery that is, to me, the most abhorrent part of the procedure: it is the follow up exam. Dix Poppas*, the surgeon responsible, published his methods in his paper and, without any sugar-coating, once a year he uses a vibrator on little girls (mean age: 7 years old) in front of their parents in order to check how much damage his surgery has done to their sexual function. Not half as much as the follow up, I expect. If this man was doing this alone, he would be imprisoned but because he has parental consent, a white coat, a surgical team and ethics committee approval (HOW?!), apparently this sexual abuse of young girls is ok.
I don’t believe any of these people, from the CEO of BP to Dix Poppas are inherently bad, they have all just found themselves in a sub-culture that has lost sight of its morals and convinced itself that unconscionable acts are ok under certain circumstances.
To produce real evil, it takes otherwise good people to stop seeing the real impact of their actions.
Today, I am angry and ashamed of my species.