Tikkun Magazine

Human Evil

“Now this is real evil,” a close friend told me after reading an account of the beheadings of two American hostages by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The hostages had been tortured before they were killed. ISIS has openly celebrated its murderous and at times genocidal intentions and actions, particularly aimed at Sunni Muslims but also at Christians and others whom they deem not “real” Muslims. Young women are captured and forced to “marry” ISIS fighters, who then repeatedly rape them. Meanwhile, a continent away, members of Boko Haram, an Islamic fundamentalist group based in northeast Nigeria, have been kidnapping and raping young girls as well. The stories about both these groups have intertwined to form a picture of fundamentalists on a rampage of evil intent.

Editorial cartoon of people walking around an endless staircase.

No Exit Strategy by Khalil Bendib. Credit: Creative Commons/OtherWords/Khalil Bendib.

I too have been horrified by these accounts. The willful infliction of pain and murder on other human beings, an act that denies the humanity of the “other,” rightfully evokes outrage and a desire to stop the violence. To the extent that anyone is motivated by this desire, they deserve praise and support.

Yet when this motivation leads people or countries to engage in counterviolence, I confront a difficult truth: that the reactions to this kind of evil are often wildly disproportionate and result in the deaths of many more civilians than were caused by the original evil that was committed. And I also confront the reality that we Americans participate, both directly and indirectly, in a complex of societal and economic relationships that cause incalculable suffering, pain, poverty, illness, starvation, and death. That we willfully ignore, repress, and deny the evils committed in our name does not exempt us from responsibility.

I certainly do not mean to suggest that the activities of ISIS or Boko Haram are one bit less horrendous in light of the atrocities committed by the implementation of American foreign policy, but we don’t live in an ahistorical vacuum (despite what the rabid twenty-four-hour news cycle would like us to believe). And, in the case of ISIS, its members indicated that they are killing Americans and Britons because of our direct involvement in the war in Iraq and our holding and torturing of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. To underscore these links, ISIS members even put their victims in orange suits when beheading them, as a mirror image of the orange suits worn by prisoners at Guantánamo. What goes around, some people say, comes around.

Evils Committed by the United States Government

I first became aware of the evil committed by our government in the 1960s as I watched the United States intervene in country after country in Central and South America to establish dictators who supported our corporations, and I protested as the United States engaged in a near-genocidal war in Vietnam, in which we eventually were responsible for the deaths of over one million Vietnamese people.

Though the antiwar movement of the 1960s and ’70s had a lasting impact in forcing our government to stop drafting young people to serve its militaristic agenda, the movement did not succeed in uprooting the military-industrial complex or diminishing its power to convince Americans that the best solution to foreign problems is to bomb first and ask questions later. To be fair, there are some in the Pentagon who resist military interventions because they fear a reawakening of antimilitary sentiments that might impose severe cutbacks of the Pentagon’s huge annual budgets, and there are some who genuinely worry about the cost in human lives caused by war. But the overwhelming role of the military in American life has nevertheless been to legitimate force and violence as a solution to problems. This attitude has been adopted wholesale by most mainstream movies, television shows, and video games, which in turn provide the backdrop for the high rate of violent activity in the United States. This attitude is particularly evident in violence toward women, but it also manifests politically in the willingness to follow leaders of both major parties into wars or warlike interventions, whether in the form of drone attacks or massive bombings, as long as these attacks do not involve the loss of American lives.


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Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, co-chair with Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. He is the author of eleven books, including two national bestsellers—The Left Hand of God and Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. His most recent book, Embracing Israel/Palestine, is available on Kindle from Amazon.com and in hard copy from tikkun.org/eip. He welcomes your responses and invites you to join with him by joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives (membership comes with a subscription to Tikkun magazine). You can contact him at rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com.

Source Citation

Lerner, Michael. 2015. Human Evil. Tikkun. 30(2): 5.

tags: Politics & Society, US Politics, War & Peace