Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 5, 2012

Evil is as evil does

Filed under: Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on February 5, 2012

The photo was taken southwest of Homs, the center of Syrian anti-government protests, by Alessio Romenzi for AFP/Getty.

We are told at least 200 — and perhaps more than 300 — have been killed in Syria this weekend.   According to the United Nations, more than 5000 have been killed since protests began last March.

Saturday Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that “Condemns all violence, irrespective of where it comes from, and in this regard demands that all parties in Syria, including armed groups, immediately stop all violence or reprisals, including attacks against State institutions.”

Passage of the resolution would not have stopped the violence, but it would have, at least, acknowledged it as exceeding acceptable limits, threatening wider violence, and as being incoherent with international values.

Instead the violence has been defended and encouraged.

The Teutonic roots of the word “evil” suggest overreaching, exceeding acceptable limits, seeking what is beyond a legitimate boundary.

I have contributed to evil when I have over-reached in judging the innocence of my motivation and the evil of others’ motivation.

There are several Hebrew words translated as evil.  One of the more common is ra’a meaning to break into pieces, shatter, divide.

I have contributed to evil when I have decided to exclude and condemn another, rejecting my relationship with the other.

Classical Greek uses kako or caco.  While admittedly ambivalent, there is the implication that evil emerges from inconsistency or incoherence with essential purpose.

I have contributed to evil — become evil — when I have failed to love, to honor, and respect another.

In view of my own capacity for evil, I am reluctant to call out another.

But perhaps it takes one to know one.

At the very least I should not look away.  Whether the source is myself or another, I ought not avoid acknowledging reality and naming it as clearly as possible.   In confronting the evil of another, my own capacity for the same may well be a source of strength, even wisdom.


According to The Telegraph:

Up to 50 people have died this morning during the attacks, a senior member of the Syrian National Council said…

“What is happening is horrible, it’s beyond belief,” said Omar Shaker, an activist in Homs. The sound of gunfire and loud explosions could be heard in the background as he spoke.

“There is a large number of martyrs,” he said. “It is the first time we are undergoing attacks of such intensity.”

Shaker said activists were transporting the wounded to the city’s mosques. Some reports said medical centres were being shelled.

“There is nowhere to take shelter, nowhere to hide,” he said. “We are running short of medical supplies and we are only able to provide basic treatment to the injured.”

Arab satellite television stations broadcast live footage from Homs this morning as the bombs went off during the call to prayer.

The BBC has gotten a reporter into Homs.   He writes:

It was a quiet night until just after dawn, when we started hearing mortars falling – about one every 30 seconds. Some heavy artillery has also been used.

Some people have now got out onto their balconies to shout, “God is great!” We also had quite a lot of small-arms fire from rebels fighters. That is a pretty futile gesture. It is Kalashnikovs against big guns.

Most people have been getting inside, hiding in the stairwells to put as much concrete between them and the street as possible.

There are several Syria-related stories at Deutsche Welle.   Most DW attention is focusing on policy options rather than the situation on the ground.

The most extensive English-language coverage of the situation in Syria is by Al-Jazeera.   It is, however, worth remembering that the royal family of Qatar is the principal sponsor of the network and is a vocal opponent of the Assad regime in Syria.

If you want, the Syrian Arab News Agency will give you the regime’s angle on reality (or the opposite).

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Comment by William R. Cumming

February 6, 2012 @ 3:28 am

The “banality” of evil? What is the basis of the right of a nation-state other than a democracy to defend its existence against its own people? What are the nature of the ACTA protests now spreading worldwide? Are the OWS protests in the US really about Wall Street or our system of governance? How about elsewhere?

What are the elements that allow any large organization or nation-states to reform themselves? Or can they? What would reform look like in the USA?

What exactly does the 1st Amendment mean? Freedom of the press? Freedom of religion? Freedom to assemble?

What is FREEDOM in the USA today?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

February 6, 2012 @ 9:17 am

Yes, evil can be the consequence of blindly banal action or inaction. (“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” Hannah Arendt)

Evil often depends on an unintentional neglect that is enabled by banal preoccupations. (“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Edmund Burke, disputed)

But evil can also be crafty, creative, and very smart.

Comment by freedom lover

February 6, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

First off I was annoyed, what the f— does Syria have to do with HS? But then I thought about Bosnia and Palestine as the excuse for terrorism. Thought about apparent benefits of intervention in Libya.

Second I was turned off by the, what? Self-flagellation, moral confusion, false equivocation over evil. You and Assad equally evil, give me a break. But I’ve read Niebuhr too, I guess I get it. Sometimes the only difference between evil and not evil is self-criticism.

But then why even raise the issue of evil? How does that take us anywhere worthwhile, which brought me back to myself, in the mirror, this morning. Not a good way to start the day.

So I decided I would argue against intervention on a variety of grounds: geo-strategic, unintended consequences, a few more. But then I noticed, you don’t push for intervention. Why did I think you did? Which brought me back to looking at myself in the mirror, this time at work where the fluorescent lights made me look old and sick.

Anyway, thought you should know. You’ve got me looking too, thinking too. I’m not happy about it, not sure what I can do about it. But if I just look away it’s really hard to look at myself and see anything I want to see.

Reality sucks.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

February 7, 2012 @ 4:52 am


Thanks. Toward the close of “The Irony of American History” (not home and don’t have the ebook), Niebuhr addresses the issue of how and when we may choose to take action even when the chance of specific success is deeply uncertain.

Mostly, though, Niebuhr helps us struggle with how to take action to advance what is “right” without being tempted to self-righteousness.

In my experience — so far — reality does not suck. Generally I find reality to be wonderful. But it is very complicated. Trying to engage reality while always being successful and always proving our own righteousness is, I think, a persistent source of unhappiness… even tragedy.

Ego — personal or national — is almost always unhelpful in solving complicated problems.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

February 8, 2012 @ 8:38 am


In the unlikely event you are still checking in here, I need to confess I was not conscious of channeling Niebuhr in my original post. Of course you are right, my self-critique is very much a reflection of Niebuhr.

Your comment caused me to go back to my sources. Following is a long quote from Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944). The bold highlights show where I had underlined my own copy of the text.

Those who believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law could then be termed “the children of light.” This is no mere arbitrary device; for evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community, or the total community of mankind, or the total order of the world. The good is, on the other hand, always the harmony of the whole on various levels. Devotion to a subordinate and premature “whole” such as the nation, may of course become evil, viewed from the perspective of a larger whole, such as the community of mankind. The “children of light” may thus be defined as those who seek to bring self-interest under the discipline of a more universal law and in harmony with a more universal good.

According to the scripture “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” This observation fits the modern situation. Our democratic civilization has been built, not by children of darkness but by foolish children of light. It has been under attack by the children of darkness, by the moral cynics, who declare that a strong nation need acknowledge no law beyond its strength. It has come close to complete disaster under this attack, not because it accepted the same creed as the cynics; but because it underestimated the power of self-interest, both individual and collective, in modern society. The children of light have not been as wise as the children of darkness.

The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. They underestimate the peril of anarchy in both the national and the international community. Modern democratic civilization is, in short, sentimental rather than cynical. It has an easy solution for the problem of anarchy and chaos on both the national and international level of community, because of its fatuous and superficial view of man. It does not know that the same man who is ostensibly devoted to the “common good” may have desires and ambitions, hopes and fears, which set him at variance with his neighbor.

It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves.

Thanks for reminding me.

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July 10, 2014 @ 12:08 am

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