A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture & Society
Nov/Dec 2001 || http://www.tikkun.org

Confronting Evil

Andrew Kimbrell

"Pure Evil," "The Faces of Evil," "Evil in the Skies"—the headlines and media coverage in the days following the September 11 terrorist attacks were rife with references to evil, and this was as it should be. As the veil of mourning lay heavily on the entire country, most Americans could only shake their heads and shudder at the enormity of what they had witnessed. "Evil" seemed the only word apt to the horror of these terrible events.

Until the recent attacks, the use of the word "evil" often met with resistance. For many it connoted an overly pejorative or judgmental mindset, and seemed redolent of outmoded taboos and attitudes. Yet, the shock and scope of the terrorist attacks jolted people into the realization that evil remains both relevant to the modern world and pertinent to our daily lives.

With the images of terror still vividly etched in our personal and collective consciousness, it is easy and tempting to project all of modern evil on to terrorists or other villainous people. At the same time, as the gravitas of the tragedy is replaced by a return to our normal lives, it is likewise tempting to let the question of evil return to the limbo into which modern ethics has sentenced it. Both reactions would signal a tragic loss of opportunity. For one of the graces that could emerge from the recent wreckage would be a new self-reflection about all evil, and especially the systemic evil in which so many of us are complicit. That reflection on, and exploration of, the nature of modern evil is essential not only for addressing the issue of terrorism and how to respond to it, but also for understanding the widening environmental and social crises that are engulfing us.

The Nature of Evil

Evil is an illusive concept, remaining the focus of moral, theological, and even psychological dispute. We can say, however, that evil is not simply wrongdoing or what theologians call "sin." Evil is that dysfunctional human condition which leads us into repeated patterns of wrongdoing. Under the sway of evil, wrongdoers are blinded or seduced so that they fail to understand the full consequences of their actions. Ultimately, the evil impulse is felt as so powerful and pervasive that it renders the individual powerless to avoid doing wrong in the future. Seen in this context, evil is a kind of ultimate illness which fatally erodes our sense of responsibility for, and ultimately connection to, all else.

Put another way, sin is a breach in one's relationship to others, to the creation and to God. It is an act of alienation from the other. We can, however, heal the wrong and break that alienation. This healing requires the reestablishment of the breached relationship through self-reflection, acknowledgment, and atonement (an at-one-ment). Evil is that force which seeks to make healing impossible. Evil makes sin, the alienation of one from the other, permanent. It makes the re-establishment of relationship and healing appear impossible. The bond is forever broken. That is why evil is so chilling. Its victory results in complete diremption, the loss of all hope of relationship, atonement, or redemption.

This dichotomy between sin and evil has extraordinary implications for human freedom. Acknowledging one's wrongdoings and choosing not to offend again (even when imperfectly realized) is the basis for gaining ethical maturity. The capability to sin, to make conscious the causes of sin, and to atone for sin, are essential for our exercise of personal freedom and our spiritual growth. Evil, on the other hand, masks sins and emasculates the sinner. It anaesthetizes the wrongdoer so he is unaware of the nature and impacts of his actions, or feels powerless to halt his actions, until it is too late. It prevents growth. Whenever evil is endemic there is a moral and ethical "developmental arrest" in a person or a society.

"Hot" Evil

In Western culture, evil has been most often represented in personal form. A despicable villain, or perhaps "the devil himself" in human trappings, tempts a sinner, blinds him with promises, and lures him into sin, alienation, and damnation. Evil's triumph was most often reflected in an individual's spiraling descent into the "hot" sins of passion—senseless violence, cruelty, sexual promiscuity. As the events of September 11 vividly illustrate, the sins of "hot" evil are obviously still with us. Filled with hatred and perhaps misplaced religious fervor by their leaders, the terrorists committed their heinous acts. These acts and other crimes of passion obviously create enormous suffering and garner most of our collective attention and media headlines. Murders, acts of terrorism, rapes, violence, hate, and sex crimes still fascinate and rightfully repel. When confronted with such evil deeds we still wonder, with a shiver, "what could have possessed them?"

Our religious traditions seek through understanding and love to provide us with tools with which to deal with evil, "possessed" people. We are led to understand that meeting hot evil with matching hatred and violence only results in the ultimate illness of evil spreading to ever more people and leading to ever more evil acts. Martin Luther King Jr. is generally credited with the quip that "the only problem with an eye for an eye is that everyone ends up blind." We are taught not to seek revenge but rather justice, and to temper our judgment with mercy. These are difficult lessons to apply but we ignore them at our continued peril.

Most of our established religions and moral teachers devote much of their energy to addressing this personalized "hot" evil. But here we come to an enigma of modern evil. Consider: for much of the last half of the twentieth century, a nuclear arms race pushed the world to the brink of Armageddon—the unimaginable final destruction of all society and nature poised on a computer trip line. More recently, the public has been jolted by revelations of a whole new genre of global environmental threats to the biosphere itself, almost unthinkable perils to life on earth—ozone depletion, global warming, species extinction, acid rain, desertification, and deforestation. And even as the world produces ever more food and wealth, hunger and poverty increase at an astounding rate. Now close to a billion people are starving every day with many more living in poverty. Evil has never been so omnipresent as it has been over the last decades, so perilous to the earth and the very future of humanity. Yet there seem to be very few evil people. The very idea of our American society being filled with roaming masses of evil people purposefully causing hunger or ecological havoc seems somewhat comical.

"Cold" Evil

As we meditate on the nightmares of nuclear holocaust, corporate-led globalization, and impending environmental catastrophe, we begin to unravel the enigma of modern evil. In our age of megatechnologies and massive corporate and government bureaucracies, evil no longer requires evil people to purvey it, as it did in the past. Rather evil is now primarily mediated by, and incarnated through, our "cold" technologies and technocracies. We are witnessing the "technification" of evil. Modern society has created a technological, institutional plane where "the system" effectuates evil in circumstances where individuals and their emotions or morals play no significant role. While recent events show that the "satanic" villain still is with us, passionate, feverish "hot" evil has been largely usurped by this automatic, systemic "cold" evil in which we all partake, in which we are all complicit. As M. Scott Peck notes in his Healing Institutional Evil, modern evil is that which "one percent of the people cause, but in which 100 percent of us ordinary sinners participate through our every day sins. Theologian Alfred Schutze in The Enigma of Evil, sums up this evolution of evil in our technological times:

… only a few centuries ago evil, so-called, had to be considered pertinent to moral behavior, more specifically the backsliding or weakness of the individual. Today, it also appears in a manner detached from the individual. It shows up impersonally in arrangements and conditions of social, industrial, technical and general life which, admittedly, are created and tolerated by man. It appears anonymously as injustice, or hardship in an interpersonal realm where nobody seems directly liable or responsible…. It has become the grey eminence infiltrating all areas of human existence…

Unfortunately, despite the unprecedented perils it spawns, we have utterly failed to register the appropriate recognition and abhorrence of this new form of institutional evil brought on by and through our economic and technological system. Focused almost solely on "hot" evil, our religious institutions, moral leaders, and teachers rarely recognize or speak out against this cold evil which impersonally has devastated so many lives and destroyed and disfigured so much of creation. The tragic result of this failure is that technological "cold" evil flourishes, causing ever greater ecocatastrophe and genocide, even as it remains unnamed and unaddressed.

The Anatomy of Cold Evil

A synonym for cold is the word "distant," and a vital component in the success of modern "cold" evil is the physical and psychic distance that technology creates between the wrongdoer and his deed. We have defined evil as that force which leads to wrongdoing while simultaneously hiding the sin and obscuring responsibility for it. Distancing, especially through impersonal technologies and systems, accomplishes much of this goal for cold evil.

Through technological distancing, the victim becomes little more than a computerized abstraction. During the Persian Gulf War, enemy troops and houses were viewed by pilots as so many blips on computer screens which disappeared after a "hit"—a kind of desert Nintendo. Computer scientist and author Joseph Weizenbaum noted this distancing and the irresponsibility it fosters when he critiqued a massive bombing strategy outlined by a Department of Defense "science panel" during the Vietnam war:

These men were able to give the counsel they gave because they were operating at an enormous psychological distance from the people who would be maimed and killed by the weapons systems that would result from the ideas they communicated to their sponsors. The lesson, therefore, is that the scientist and technologist must, by acts of will and imagination, actively strive to reduce such psychological distances, to counter the forces that tend to remove him from the consequences of his actions.
Closing the Distance (1976)

Nuclear war perhaps best exemplifies the facelessness and technological distancing so essential to modern evil. These weapons capable of destroying life as we know it, the aptly named inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), are to be launched half a world away from their intended targets. To compound this physical and psychic distancing, and to further deflect responsibility, the missiles will not even be launched by humans but rather by technology—computers programmed to assess the threat and make the "cold" launch decision.

Modern evil's distancing is not solely a result of high-impact military technology. The behavior and nature of modern technocracies, businesses, and government organizations are equally illustrative of cold evil's distancing. Witness how corporations, now working on the global scale, routinely make calculated decisions about the risks of the products they manufacture. Typically they weigh the cost of adding important safety features to their products against the potential liability to victims and the environment and make the best "bottom line" decision for the company. More often than not safety measures lose out in this calculation. As for the people affected, they have been "distanced" into numerical units moved into profit or loss columns. The corporations decide how many "units" they can afford to have harmed or killed by their products.

The individual people involved in these decisions are not evil; I have been in many corporate law firms and boardrooms and have yet to see any "high fives" or hear shouts of satisfaction at the death, injuries, or crimes against nature these organizations cause. But that of course simply underscores the problem; the corporation is fully distanced in time and space from its actions. The pesticide company is not there, perhaps has even gone out of business, when twenty years after it has abandoned its chemical plant, local aquifers and rivers become hopelessly polluted, fish and wildlife are wiped out, and there is a fatal cancer cluster among those relying on local water supply. The tire company executives are not around to see the crash, hear the screams, or see the deaths caused by their badly made tires.

The workings of the global trade and finance organizations truly epitomize the physical and psychological distancing of cold evil. In the isolation of their first world offices, members of the World Trade Organizations and their partner financiers and economists at the World Bank and the IMF make decisions affecting hundreds of millions. This is most evident in the "cold" evil practice of what is euphemistically referred to as "structural adjustment." The IMF and Wold Bank have for decades loaned money at considerable interest to "developing" nations, essentially to capitalize their modernization and technification through the funding of huge, ecologically devastating, industrial projects. Not surprisingly, much of this money ended up in the hands of corrupt governments and entrepreneurs. As interest skyrocketed, many countries found themselves unable to repay these loans. To solve this repayment problem the IMF and World Bank implemented a set of "structural adjustment programs" (SAPs). These SAPs involved renegotiating a country's loan on more favorable terms if it agreed to "adjust" its policies, which meant reducing wages, lowering labor and environmental standards, slashing government spending (particularly in health, education, and welfare), and allowing increased foreign domination of the country's industries.

The effects of SAPs were devastating. Millions lost their jobs and found themselves with no access to housing, health care, or food. Spending on education in many countries declined by more than 25 percent in less than a decade. It is estimated that approximately 19,000 children die every day as a direct result of the SAPs mandated by the IMF and the World Bank. Imagine the world's response to any series of "hot" evil actions that would kill thousands of children daily. Yet the cold evil of SAPs and corporate-led globalization went without mass recognition until quite recently. To be sure, it is now generally accepted, even by the global institutions, that these SAPs have been fiscally ineffective as well as socially and environmentally devastating. But the bureaucrats simply view this decades-long regime of international deprivation and oppression as a policy "miscalculation" that requires "modification."

Cold evil's distancing is also profoundly present in those who work for corporations and other technocracies. Our minute and specialized jobs have distanced us from the morality and consequences of our collective work. Whether processing financial statements at a bank, riveting at a Boeing defense plant, litigating for a large law firm, or delivering online data to corporations, most people's work is simply a tiny cog in the great machine of production. As such we remain psychologically numbed and removed from the ultimate consequences of the collective work being done. We fall into what E.F. Schumacher terms "the sullen irresponsibility" of modern work.

Moreover even if the worker were able to somehow overcome this irresponsibility, to breach that distance and cry out against the immorality of modern production ("I reject this alienating labor, stop the machines! They are destroying nature, society, and the dignity of work!"), her employment would quickly cease. Virtually all corporations and government bureaucracies are dictatorships. These autocratic managers quickly punish any underling who would begin to demand an ethical basis for work and production. Each of us is caught, therefore, in a kind of job blackmail. We allow ourselves to be numbed by inhuman, meaningless work and fully distanced from what we actually produce. We thereby forsake responsibility for the consequences of our production system. We sell our moral birthright, all in order to "pay the bills." In this way the tremendous distancing endemic to our huge technological system has turned workers, the vast majority of us, into ethical eunuchs and unintentional criminals.

Whatever their ultimate moral and physical cost, our paychecks do allow many of us to become profligate "consumers." This, ironically enough, is termed "living the good life." The cold evil so endemic to our technological systems richly inhabits the purported "good life." We proudly bring home the new, convenient, "family friendly" SUV without a thought as to how this polluting gas guzzler contributes to widespread respiratory illness in our children and to the catastrophic environmental devastation of global warming. We calmly munch on hamburgers without a thought as to the rainforests being destroyed for cattle grazing or the immense cruelty involved in the raising and slaughtering of these animals. We turn the computer on without thinking of the power supplied by a nearby nuclear power plant with all of its social and environmental risks. We could go through our shopping days and find that we are complicit in myriad wrongdoings brought to us by systemic evil but which we do not easily recognize because of distancing.

The Techno-Cocoon

Whether it be within the automobile, office cubicle, or airplane, whether we use the television, computer or telephone, we are ever surrounded and circumscribed by technologies and technocratic thinking. Our daily work usually involves being cocooned indoors in artificially lit, temperature-controlled, machine-laden office cubicles and locked into the technocratic hierarchies emblematic of corporate or bureaucratic life. As for our non-work hours, the average American spends more than four hours a day in front of the TV and an increasing number of hours at the computer. In the transition between home and work, the majority of Americans commute alone, inside temperature-controlled cars, tuned in to their radios or stereo systems. This absorption of each individual into what I call the "techno-cocoon" is the ultimate in psychic distancing, profoundly limiting our experience and consciousness.

Techno-cocooning leads to huge segments of the population becoming "autistic" to the natural world. Non-human creation goes almost completely unnoticed. When nature is seen it is usually viewed on TV or glimpsed from a whizzing car, train, or plane. For the short periods when we are in nature it is usually experienced as technological "recreation" (re-creation) mediated through the roar of RVs, motor boats, jet skis, snowmobiles and other power toys.

Our circumscription by technology has also made us "autistic" to one another, markedly eroding our social lives in recent years. Come evening time I often note the startling difference between the streets of suburban Northern Virginia where I currently live and those of the streets of Queens, New York City, where I was raised more than three decades ago. During my upbringing there were people on the stoops each evening talking, kids were playing various games, babies were walked in strollers—there was a real sense of neighborhood. Now as I walk my dog each twilight through successive suburban cul de sacs, all I see are the glowing blue lights emanating from the various TVs and computers in each home, as different members of the family cocoon themselves into their favorite nighttime techno-entertainment or work. This technological isolation and collapse of community is not merely anecdotal. Author and scholar Robert D. Putnam in his aptly titled book, Bowling Alone, carefully documents the precipitous decline in all forms of civic participation during the last decades.

Ultimately, techno-cocooning makes impossible the "acts of will and imagination" required to defeat cold evil's psychological distancing. We passively, and with little awareness, abandon our minds and wills to the convenience, power, and amusement offered by the technological cocoon. In fact, the technological environment becomes to us as water is to a fish; we do not even consciously recognize our enclosure in the cocoon, and therefore do not realize the ongoing devastation of nature, society, or even our own spirit. As we slip into near total technological "autism," we cannot hear the great machines as they level the world's forests and dig up and destroy the earth. We cannot hear the cries of animals being abused, slaughtered, or harassed to extinction. We cannot see the suffering of our fellow humans whether they are the homeless we step over to get into cars or offices, or our own despondent family members locked into nearby, but utterly separate, cocoons. We do not even recognize the banalization and ultimate death of our own wills and imaginations as we "amuse ourselves to death" in the techno-cocoon.

All in all, the techno-cocoon provides a kind of final anatomy of cold evil, creating a continuous buffer between each person and the many horrific wrongs of our technological system, sins in which we are all complicit but now blissfully unaware. We sit in our various techno-cocoons fully distanced from nature and each other, yet fully entranced and engaged with the machines. The mass autism engendered by the techno-cocoon is surely unprecedented in both the scope and extent of its alienating impacts. We literally are no longer present to participate in the creation, the social world, or the spiritual world. Memory and faith become equally irrelevant. The diremption of cold evil is complete. We are deprived of the very relationships required for our healing.

Relationship and Healing

I have no panacea for addressing the growing threats of cold evil, entwined as they are with so much of our daily lives in our technological society. However the first step is awareness. As we confront the terrorists' "hot" evil, we must not use the fact that the vast majority of us are not involved in this kind of evil as a vindication of our own society or our personal ethics. Rather we must avoid this trap and finally confront the cold evil with which we are complicit and recognize the potential catastrophic threat it represents to ourselves and Creation.

As for dealing with cold evil directly, I know that there cannot be healing or atonement without relationship. And to restore our relationships to one another and the natural world we must shatter the distancing so critical for cold evil. A first step could be to cease distancing ourselves as "consumers." The word "consume" means to destroy (as in a consuming fire) or waste (tuberculosis was called consumption because it wastes away the body). We must no longer be mere consumers, destroying and wasting the natural world. We must no longer be complicit in the crimes of our industrial system. To face cold evil we must become "creators" not consumers. We must break our techno-cocoons and truly see that each action we take in deciding which products we buy, or services we use, creates a very different future for ourselves and the earth. We must take responsibility for the consequences of how we fulfill our basic human needs.

We must also change our relationship to work. We can no longer be content with mere jobs and the wage blackmail through which cold evil works. Despite the often overwhelming economic pressures, we must at least attempt to seek a vocation, a "calling," that expresses our values and fits our needs. Our work should be a "profession," a profession of our beliefs—good work whose consequences we can embrace.

Ultimately confronting cold evil requires us to begin dismantling the structures and systems in which it thrives. Author Kirkpatrick Sale has urged us to reconsider the importance of "human scale." Moving toward the restoration of human scale in our social and production systems as alternatives to current global scale organizations and technologies may be the only way to permanently defeat the distancing that has been such a moral disaster for modern man.

In the memorable phrase of Father Thomas Berry, our current economic and technological system has turned all of nature from a community of subjects into a collection of objects. To restore relationship and begin healing we must again treat the living kingdom as a community of subjects, each with its own meaning and destiny, none as merely exploitable objects or means of production. Moving towards this new moral community involves nothing less than replacing the infrastructure of cold evil with technologies and human systems which are responsive to our physical and spiritual needs and the needs of the rest of the biotic community. This means evolving a means of production and social organization for which we can take true responsibility. It is a daunting, almost overwhelming task, but the alternative is to continue to live in state of cold evil, complicit in the current system's crimes and distanced from relationship and healing. This we can no longer do.

Andrew Kimbrell is an attorney, author, and activist. He is director of the International Center for Technology Assessment and author of several books, including The Human Body Shop and The Masculine Mystique.

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