Our good, evil and gray world

Alan Braunholtz

When faced with behavior that is monstrously beyond our imagination, it is attractive to bandy around the word evil as a catch-all noun. This lets humanity off the hook.

People do evil and people do good, the frightening duality of man. If art is anything to go by, we’ll never change. Through the ages paintings portray man in hues of glory and shame and stories constantly explore the doubts of their characters through love, jealousy, lust vengeance and fear. Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” or the film “Apocalypse Now” are classic examples.

Survivors of concentration camps and torture victims know evil and describe it as an intimate, almost sensual feeling. Up close and personal, an aura, almost a smell, something that belongs to a person.

Using words like evil in a detached general way seems to me very dangerous. Then it becomes something someone else is and not you. Every country, city, tribe or people that ever fought and killed believed themselves “good” and the others “evil.”

No people think of themselves as less than good, let alone evil, so how do we disconnect ourselves from the consequences of our action or inaction? The terrorists of September 11 used in part the passion of religion. Some aspects of religions are very black and white and create a rapture of a certain perfect world, which obscures any other points of view.

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This blocks our natural connection to different people and allows us to see “nonbelievers,” “infidels” and “heathens” as little more than dust. All religions have these hidden bloody corners in their past, and all religions also have a tradition of constantly trying to battle this intolerance of other views. Sadly, it looks like in parts of the Middle East that these dark corners of Islam are flourishing.

The images of September 11 stay with me as terrible evil acts beyond my comprehension. How could anyone do that? This is a question I can’t answer. The hatred and disconnection needed to ignore all that pain, to celebrate so much death, is beyond me. To be so far removed from humanity is in my mind evil.

September 11 also illustrated the goodness of man. We all connected with each other, not just in America but the whole world stopped in shock and realized for a few moments that we’re all in this world together. Firefighters ran into burning buildings and tribes in Africa offered all the cows they could spare to help. Tragedies speak to our souls and instinctively remind us of the oneness of mankind. “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The the plight of Russian sailors trapped inside the Kursk, the space shuttle disintegration, September 11 and other tragedies overcame the differences we’ve created through ideology, religion and other thoughts. Perhaps God is this oneness, this instinctive empathy that connects all living things and all people, summarized by the golden rule “do unto others as you would want to have done to you.”

“America is a good country” is a staple of our speeches. We certainly want to be a good people. “All men are created equal,” a great ethical starting point, is written into our Constitution and we fought a terrible civil war to uphold it.

Today few people would argue that slavery isn’t evil, but 200 years ago slavery was part of the way of the world and few questioned it. “Surely God wouldn’t frown on this natural order of things and such a profitable form of commerce …?” Were the slave-traders evil or merely ignorant?

When watching dramas like “Roots,” I can never decide who is worse. The people who see slaves as little more than commercial dust so consequently have no problem with all the suffering. Or the ones who feel it is immoral but the pressures of society, profit and fear suppress any action. Does it really matter? The result is the same, though I guess knowing that something is wrong is the first step on the road to changing it.

While spectacular tragedies still manage to connect us, we seem to be increasingly immune to famine, disease, poverty and war. Stark photos of children lost in dust and hunger or hollowed-eyed girls staring past their childhood in a sweatshop viscerally connect with me and prompt harsh questions of myself. How can I live so well worrying mainly about how to live even better when other humans are suffering so?

I know the answers our society trots out: “that’s the way the world is; nothing can be done; no one else is doing anything; free trade is a moral principal” – and I hear echoes of past answers.

Afghanistan showed what a potent world policeman we could be and I imagine a widowed Rwandan mother asking me how I could stand by and do nothing for three months while genocidal hatred slaughtered over 1 million people.

If any of us came across some children drowning in a muddy pond we’d all step in to try and save them, $400 shoes, pants and jacket be damned. We’d probably even risk our life. What is the moral difference between a child drowning in a pool and a child drowning in poverty on TV?

“Distance; there are too many children; others can do it; I’ve done my share already.”

We’re a global village now and have no excuse for not knowing what’s going on or how to help. Oxfam’s phone number (1-800 -77-OXFAM or is easy to find, and none of the other excuses would make you feel good standing on the side of a lake.

If we want to be a better country, we probably need to sacrifice some of our comforts to make the world a better place. So many people (euro-snobs and tyrants excepted) would welcome an active foreign policy that makes us a busy body for democracy, freedom and nation-building everywhere in the world.

Why not forgive all Third World debt (we forgave Europe huge sums after the WW II) and encourage a fairer trade system that allows the emerging nations a chance to stand up.

We have the power and wealth to do it and drag the other rich nations with us. Giving more than a paltry 0.09 percent of our GNP in foreign aid would be a great start. Denmark gives proportionately 10 times more, which is embarrassing.

Much of the world looks to us as an ideal of freedom and democracy and is hurt when their hero walks over them with feet of clay.

“All men are created equal” doesn’t only apply to citizens of wealthy Western and developed nations.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.

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