Have they not travelled in the land so that they should have hearts with which to feel and ears with which to hear? For indeed it is not the eyes that grow blind – but it is the hearts, which are within the bosoms, that grow blind.
– [Sûrah al-Hajj: 46]
“White, brown, yellow and black color is not restricted
You have a self-destructive destiny when you’re inflicted
And you’ll be one of god’s children that fell from the top
There’s no diversity because we’re burning in the melting pot
So when the devil wants to dance with you, you better say never
Because the dance with the devil might last you forever.”
– Dance with the Devil, Immortal Technique
The devil, Shaitan or Iblis, in the Islamic tradition is the most beautiful of Allah’s angels.
All cultures have their mythologies of evil. People everywhere struggle to grasp and understand the evil that our fellow human beings visit on each other. We are continually asking each other why evil things happen and what this tells us about the nature of creation. These debates re-surface and are recast whenever we witness events of great tragedy.
I read with interest one such recasting after the Boston Bombing. Written by Gavin Shulman, the article published by the Huffington Post asked, “Are the Boston Bombers Just Douchebags?” Shulman then proceeds to deride the bombers as being “kind of lame,” “just kind of shitty, boring bros,” “just a set of Euro-trash tools,” and “just a couple of douchebags.” After deriding the way they looked, Shulman declares that they “they seem like f%$#ing losers.” He finally concludes that “these two were simply a pair of assholes” and that we should forget them as soon as possible.
Reading the article made me think of the first comments made by a classmate of one of the bombers. She recalls, “He was normal,” said Lulu Emmons, who went to Rindge & Latin, the city’s public high school, with Dzhokhar. “He kind of fit in with everyone. Not really close with anyone, but he was friendly.” And finally, “I am just a little shocked. I sat next to this guy. I joked with him. I laughed with him. I had class with him. It is a little crazy,” she said. Then one of his former teachers comments, “If someone were to ask me what the kid was like, I would say he had a heart of gold,” he said. “He was as gracious as possible.”
Then news broke this week about a man, Ariel Castro, in Cleveland. Castro abducted and kept three young women locked in his house for a decade. During this time he raped, starved and probably beat them, fathering at least one child, with an unknown number of miscarriages.
As the full horror of the story broke, once again, people wondered. Castro was well known around the community. People went round for barbeques and he was supposed to be one of the best bass players in Cleveland. One of Castro’s neighbours commented, “He was a nice guy, he would come around and say hi. He gave the kids rides up and down the street on his four-wheeler,” he added that “He asked me if I wanted a ride. .. He seemed like he was a good guy to the kids that were here. … I didn’t think anything of it.” A relative was “as blindsided as anyone else.”
How do we reconcile the two pictures we have of these people?
Examined in isolation, neither picture makes sense. Examined together, they tell us a lot about the nature of evil in the world.
In our minds monsters are dark, misshapen and ugly figures. They are not star students or regular guys we hang out with over a barbecue or play bass with. In our minds we instantly recognize evil from its ugliness. The reality is far more disturbing.
The reason Shulman’s article is so plain wrong is because it asks us to look at people who are “losers” or “douchebags” with suspicion. It attempts a causal link between those who are not celebrated in television ads, who are not the beautiful people as potentially evil. It derides those who commit horrific acts as somehow being the losers in society, people who have failed. And most of all, it panders to the illusion that those who commit evil are somehow the misshapen figures in a child’s bad dream.
Yet in too many ways, neither Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, nor Ariel Castro were “losers” as judged by society. They were mostly regular guys. It’s only after the fact that everyone strains to recall some fact that doesn’t fit, something that would mark them out as evil. But these marks can only be seen in hindsight, never in the moment.
The reality is that monsters are more likely to be affable, beautiful and seductive. The nature of evil is that it does not call us to do evil deeds in the name of the devil. Rather it calls us to do evil in the name of some other goal, be that freedom and justice, or pleasure and power.
If we’re to be vigilant of the evil that exists in all societies, then we have to disenchant ourselves from the image, from the spectacle. We have to wean ourselves off the silly caricatures that mass media sells us, pandering to our desires and telling us what we want to hear.
If we want to recognise the development of evil in our midst, of the corruption of good things into bad things, then surely we will have to take a greater interest in the people around us. We will have to use more than our eyes. Instead, we will have to use our hearts.