How Evil Happens

William Saletan at Slate (yeah, I know, it’s William Saletan, but it’s a good article) and Ben Hubbard/Jodi Rudoren at the New York Times write that Israel simply isn’t concerning itself with whether their shells are hitting UN schools where Palestinian civilians are taking refuge. Israel is saying it’s not targeting “safe zones,” and maybe it isn’t. But it appears Israel is taking no precaution to not bomb safe zones, either.

Saletan is accusing Israel of war crimes, saying that the Israelis have succumbed to a mentality that everything they do is justified because Hamas is ruthless. For example:

Israel’s prime minister and other officials have argued that Hamas’ use of human shields makes it completely responsible for any civilian casualties in Gaza.

This mentality makes it that much easier to pull the trigger. The Times says Israeli officials have offered no evidence that enemy fighters were near the Jabaliya school, and interviews with people on the neighboring streets found nobody who had seen fighters in the vicinity. Nor were there any bullet casings or holes. Does the enemy’s frequent use of human shields justify killing civilians in an instance where there’s no evidence of that behavior? Did this rationale play a role in the IDF’s decision to shoot?

This is a classic example of how good people get sucked into doing bad things, and I suspect Palestinian terrorists would offer us another example of the same thing. I wrote in Rethinking Religion,

If we were paying attention, history should have taught us that people who create evil hardly ever see themselves or their intentions as evil. Osama bin Laden and his 9/11 terrorists believed their attack was righteous and justified, as did Timothy McVeigh when he blew up the Oklahoma City federal building.

People are seduced into evil because they don’t recognize evil as evil. They mistake it for justice, or righteousness, or even God’s Will. And the seduction begins with the thought that “I’m a good person,” and “his hatred of me is evil, but my hatred of him is justified.” As soon as we identify ourselves as “good” and the Other, whoever they are, as “evil,” we’ve well on the way to giving ourselves a cosmic permission slip to do whatever we want to be rid of them.

I say this seductive impulse is at the root of most of the mass atrocities humankind has inflicted on itself through the ages. That’s why the ways we conceptualize good and evil have real-world consequences.

Please understand that I’m not saying people or nations shouldn’t defend themselves from those who intend to do them harm. What gets us into trouble is thinking that we’re entitled to Holy Retribution or that we are somehow qualified to pass judgments and inflict brutality on entire populations, because we’re the good guys.

Same old, same old.

11 thoughts on “How Evil Happens

  1. And both the Israeli’s and the Palestinians feel that God is on their side.

    As Lincoln said:
    “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

  2. “Same old, same old”

    Yes and let’s look at exactly who benefits from these regular fits of war by the IDF. First of all bb, he seems to relish in the war-leader role and his popularity goes up significantly during every conflict, same for Hamas, they are right wing religious zealots incapable of governing (sound familiar) and need these intermittent wars to shore up support. BB and Hamas neither could survive without the other. And lastly the good old US defense contractors, lots of people make lots of money off of massacring these children, and with the regularity of bb’s thirst for blood they can count on the cash!

  3. Nod. And part of it is just war in general. It’s… weird.

    Innocent people will die in a war. Okay, and people, even relatively decent people, people who could live a long, good life, will do terrible things in a war.

    These are known things, and people rush to be understanding.

    But that’s why war is such a fucked up thing. That’s why it must be avoided, at such high cost. You have to say “War is only a reasonable if every other course of action leads to even worse outcomes.”

    The world is really sick right now. People will still defend Iraq claiming “America has a right to pursue its vital nation interests” (note that there were no vital national interests in play) and that meant war was okay, and that meant all the hideous things that followed were okay.

    I’ll guarantee that’s a lot of what’s happening in Israel right now. “War is okay because, hey, Hamas!!!!!1!!!!. And that means we have to do it right, and if that means a shelter gets bombed, well, shucks, awful things happen in a war.”

  4. Not Me
    an Underfable

    Once upon a time two mighty nations laid waste to the land in pursuit of wealth. The forests fell, and Mother Earth cried out, “Who will rid me of these pests?”

    The Devil said, “At your service, milady.” So the Devil visited the King of the Trogs, and he whispered, “I do not exist here, in you; but I do exist over there, in them.” Then the Devil visited the Elf Mage, and he whispered the exact same thing.

    A mere millennium later, the forests grew tall, but not one single Trog or Elf remained.

    Moral: It’s always the other guy’s fault.

  5. Gee, I kinda miss the halcyon days when George Bush was leading the charge to rid the world of evildoers.

  6. The Fourth Mindfulness Training: I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I am wondering whether you can quote these sources with the certainty that they are true?

  7. Marvin Schwartz — The bare facts of the situation are what they are; Israel hasn’t been able to provide a reasonable argument that their actions were justified. And to not speak up in the face of atrocity isn’t the Buddha Way, either, dude.

    • MMarvin — was that supposed to prove something? FYI I was in lower Manhattan on 9/11 so I do have a little personal experience with Islamic terrorism, and I don’t doubt Hamas is ruthless. But it’s obvious to me that Israel’s biggest enemy is Israel, particularly the right-wing hard-liners who make policy. Soon all the tribal loyalty in the world may not be able to save it.

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