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Monday, 2 May 2011

On evil and rejoicing

Be ye not glad when thy enemy shall fall! And let not thy heart rejoice in his ruin, lest the Lord see and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him (Proverbs 24:17-18).
I'm grateful to James Fraser for putting this quote my way today, with regard to the fall-out from the killing of Osama Bin Laden.  I am disturbed by the open scenes of celebrating, the chanting of 'USA, USA', and so on.  So, Proverbs 24:17-18 seems a timely, relevant and very humane thought to ponder, even in rather hasty and disjointed fashion, as here.

I've been interested in the problem of evil for some time and how one should respond to it as an historian.  Some fine historians refuse to use the word (I believe Sir Ian Kershaw is one); other, rather less fine, ones (Michael Burleigh) treat evil as a pathology.  I admit that I haven't reached any sort of conclusion - indeed I haven't decided whether one can have a concept of evil outside theology - but my gut feeling is that the modal verb for 'evil' is 'to do' rather than 'to be'.  People do bad things - very bad things.  Maybe some achieve badness.  Perhaps others have the doing of bad things thrust upon 'em.  But no one, I think, is born bad.

It seems to me that unless one appreciates the essential humanity even of people who do unspeakably bad things, one will never really be able to make any progress in understanding or dealing with these issues.  Part of being an historian is opening oneself up to the understanding of other people.  That is what lies behind all of the usual, standard advice about careful, sensitive, critical ways of reading sources and analysing other societies. 

Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou have pointed out that some of the architects of the Holocaust can be seen to have very human sides.  But, they ponder, should we see such people as human?  Žižek has asked relatively recently, citing a Middle Eastern proverb that an enemy is simply someone whose story we haven’t heard, whether we should we invite the concentration camp guard to tell us his story?  Should we, in other words, open ourselves up to understanding his version of events, in the way I just mentioned? I am afraid that my answer to all these questions is yes we should.  This is all part of what I call 'the uncomfortable ethics' of history.  It is uncomfortable to admit that there is potentially (unless we really are saints) probably a bit of the Bin Laden, a bit of the Heydrich maybe, in all of us human beings.  But unless we admit that I don't think that, as historians, one can ever really explain, understand and help to prevent the recurrence of the actions of these people.  But that is the demand laid upon us as historians and if you don't want to shoulder it, don't be an historian.  I'll nevertheless repeat one of my teaching mantras: to explain is not to excuse.

But I will also repeat the comment of Derrida, which I have mentioned before, that only the unforgivable can truly be forgiven.  Osama Bin Laden did very bad things, no doubt.  It may well also be the case, I think, the case, that in terms of Realpolitik killing him had perhaps become inevitable.  That said, there are still people alive and flourishing in the world who have committed, or have ordered, deeds that are as bad or worse than anything Bin Laden did or ordered (I could name George W. Bush, for one).  Some are supported by the West, as (as it has become glib to remind people) was Bin Laden and Saddam before him.

Bin Laden may have deserved to die; perhaps there was indeed no alternative to killing him.  We might be relieved at his death because it might, with time, prove to make the world a safer place.  But he was nevertheless a human being.  And I don't think that a human being's killing, or the fact that a human being made his own killing necessary, is ever something to celebrate or rejoice about.  Doing so is understandable; it is human, all too human, and therefore something that the historian must open up to, but I think that it is also regretable because it simultaneously reduces our shared or fellow humanity.  Doing so evaporates any attempt to create a moral high ground.  Justice may have been done (although with no due process, it's difficult to make the claim stick), but rejoicing about it debases any cause that thinks of itself as just.

Here are two nice quotes (one from a truly great man; the other from someone now more famous than she was last Sunday, and whom I salute), summing up the situation more succinctly and stylishly:

"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy." - Jessica Dovey (a US English teacher) 
"Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." - Martin Luther King


  1. When I saw the news this morning, I wasn't sure how I felt. Rejoice and elation were not among those feelings. I suppose I can only feel a sad resignation - that it was necessary.

    I'm not comfortable with the kind of hubris that goes along with the feeling that "we got payback!"

  2. A very welcome post on this matter, with a clarity and wisdom that is lamentably lacking in the over-excited media covering a reallife Jack Bauer operation.
    I couldn't help but wonder at the scenes of jubilation in the streets of Washington and New York, wondering how these were different from the kinds of protests/partying we've seen in recent years in the streets of many a city in the Middle East, including the burning of flags and the chanting. These we've discarded as irrational behaviour, and here we find the US people using the same "language" to celebrate a retribution of some sort.

  3. Oh. That's a shame. Perhaps I will reattribute it, in best early medieval style, to 'Pseudo-Martin Luther King'.

  4. The origin of the misquote is here: http://i.imgur.com/cqtjw.jpg, i.e. the comment about mourning thousands but not one enemy was from a woman on FB, who followed it with an MLK quote about hate, darkness and love. The two then got accidentally squished together and tweeted by the magician Penn, from Penn & Teller: http://twitter.com/#!/pennjillette/status/65246380024807424

  5. thoughtful post and certainly scores like it are appearing all over here in the US - I would note though - for disconcerted by the apparent jubilation of the crowds - that when the media types started interviewing individuals in those crowds they did express ambivalence - joy over what we hope is the end of a nasty time as well as doubts about the "properness" of rejoicing over anyone's death.

  6. @ ADM: I think you have me right. Some time I must post something on another of my mantras, that the tired debate about whether or not we should judge the past misses the point, it is how the past would judge *us* that matters.
    @Ceil1: Yes I saw some of these. Nonetheless I wonder... I can understand people going to Ground Zero for some quiet reflection and being overtaken by morons, but I am not sure that participation in a crowd outside the White House is the obvious expression of reservation and reflection ... until a liberal journalist (and by the way, US readers, please be grateful that you still have liberal media!) asks you why you're there.


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