Some thoughts on the nature of evil

“Civilized people cannot fathom, much less predict, the actions of evil people.”
-Ñ Ed Evans, MGySgt, USMC (Ret.)

I disagree strongly with that statement, and with the sentiment and misunderstanding that motivates it.

This statement is deeply, profoundly wrong, because it caters to the illusion of the average man: I am not evil. Other people are evil. Evil is something foreign; it is a mysterious, unseeable, unknowable force that informs the actions of others. Civilized people like me are not evil; in fact, evil is so unknowable, so Other, so Alien that civilized people like me can never even hope to comprehend it.


Evil is a part of all of us. It lives inside each and every one of us. It shapes and influences who we are as human beings. In its measure, it defines us. Civilized people certainly CAN fathom evil; indeed; civilized people can BECOME evil.

And the fact that people cling to the naive comfort of the illusion that they are not evil, they can never be evil, they can never know evil, is exactly what makes it happen.

The guards at the Nazi concentration camps were not monsters. They were not psychopaths; psychopaths make poor soldiers. They were not insane; they were not uncivilized barbarians. They were ordinary people, just like you and me. They perpetrated monstrous acts of atrocity because they were tricked into believing their actions were good. They could not recognize their own evil for what it was.

Just as we civilized Americans were tricked into evil when we created concentration camps of our own for Japanese Americans during WWII.

Evil has a thousand justifications, a thousand rationales. It isn’t my problem. I have to do it. I’m under orders. I am not the one to question. I’ll be forgiven. They are bad, not me. I am doing what is necessary. I am doing what is right.

You want to fathom evil? Don’t look at terrorists and Nazi; smell yourself. Look inside your own heart. You’ll find evil there, better believe it. And if you deny it, you make yourself a tool of those who would use the evil within you for their own ends.

The only way to defeat evil is to know that evil is a part of you. It isn’t foreign and unfathomable; it exists within you, and me, and every other person who has ever lived. If you know your own capacity for evil, understand it, know the shape and form of the darkest part of your heart, then you can never be tricked by it, you can never be surprised by it, you can recognize it for what it is.

But that’s scary. It’s terrifying to look into yourself and see the monster within you. Far more comfortable and safe to believe that evil is Out There, is some crazy Arab or some homicidal Nazi, but never, ever, ever YOU.

You want to believe evil is unfathomable? Fine. Don’t be surprised when your circumstance changes and you find yourself commiting the atrocity.