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The nature of evil

by Phillip Knightley
01 September 2009
Once the villains of film and fiction, people known for their evil deeds are today commonplace. Phillip Knightley examines the resurgence of evil, particularly in the media, and questions its place in reportage.
There seems to be a lot of evil about at the moment. In Britain, the naming of the mother of ‘Baby P’, the toddler who died of abuse and neglect at the hands of the mother, her boyfriend and a lodger, produced a veritable outpouring of accusations of evil.
There were some who said they were relieved at last to be able “to put a face to evil” (the courts had previously kept the mother’s name secret). She was now branded as “the evil mum of Baby P”, described as “an exceptionally evil woman”, as a “cypher of evil” and the whole tragic story as “a monstrous evil”.
It seems that evil has even invaded the political debate. America’s right, worried that President Obama might be considering a British/Australian health care system, condemned his proposals as “evil”.
And, of course, we can go back to President Reagan who described the Soviet Union as “an evil empire”, George W Bush who called America’s enemies “an axis of Evil” in 2002 and China which labelled the Falun Gong “an evil cult”.
What’s going on?
How to explain this outbreak of evil? Has it been around for ages just waiting for an opportunity to manifest itself? Have we all slipped from our normal standards of goodness? Or is it all the result of lazy journalists who want to evoke a reaction from us with a word that fits easily into a headline.
That’s the strange thing about evil. People are confused over what it is. They can give their own examples of it, but they are hard-pressed to define it.

That’s the strange thing about evil. People are confused over what it is. They can give their own examples of it, but they are hard-pressed to define it. And in discussions about it, they fall back on religious argument and eventually drag in God and Satan.
Can a person be born evil? Or were they taught it? Or did they catch it from someone else? If they were born with it, does in run in families, like blue eyes or red hair? Are there degrees of evil? Can you be a little bit evil or do you have to be totally? (Only totally, according to the tabloid press.) Can you grow out of being evil and become good, or is it a lifetime affliction? Do evil people know they are evil or do they think they are like everyone else?
The dictionary is of little use. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines evil as: “bad in a positive sense ... the antithesis of good ... a wrong-doing, a sin or crime.” This is not very helpful. Search engines are somewhat better, but Google is compromised because one of its slogans is “Don’t be evil.”
The philosophers cast more light. They have argued that the difference between good and evil is simply one of personal inclination. Historically it is certainly hard to find any act, no matter how repulsive today, that has not at some time been acceptable in some societies.
I have my own theory of why the use of the word seems more popular in recent times. It is to do with the new way of waging war. Regardless of the reason nations decided to go to war, they have always had war aims. The main one was to defeat the enemy. To do this, you waged war against his armed forces and his infrastructure. You set out to destroy his soldiers, his cities, factories, railways, roads and bridges. You continued to reduce them to rubble until he surrendered.
But recent wars, usually in the name of ‘freedom and democracy’, have been waged against his very way of life. You set out to destroy everything his nation stood for and to re-constitute in your own image.
So deeply-held are human inhibitions against killing fellow human beings that our leaders must first condition us to wage this kind of total war, especially since new research shows that 90% of all casualties in war are now civilians and 10% soldiers – a reversal of what the figures were at the beginning of the twentieth century.
As the invasion of Iraq showed, people are reluctant to buy the “imminent threat” case, so governments have to revert to demonising the enemy, first his leaders and then his followers. They are described as evil, sub-human monsters and a war against them as just and necessary. A First World War quote from Rudyard Kipling is a good example: “There are only two divisions in the world today, human beings and Germans.”
The war in the Balkans in 1999 was, said the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, “a battle between Good and Evil, between civilisation and barbarity.” The American General Wesley Clark suggested that God was on NATO’s side, therefore the Serbs’ cause must be not only wrong but evil.
The crudest approach is to suggest that the enemy leader is not only evil but insane. Saddam Hussein was a “deranged psychopath”, Milosovic was “mad”. The weekly magazine, The Spectator, headlined an article on Osama bin Laden, ‘Inside the Mind of the Maniac’.
Anyone who publicly suggests a cooler, more rational analysis will be met with a torrent of abuse. In the Gulf War, dissenters were labelled “friends of terrorists, ranters, nutty, hypocrites, animals, barbarians, mad, traitors, unhinged, appeasers and apologists”.
When we label someone as bad or evil, say psychologists, it makes us feel like punishing them or inflicting pain on them. It also makes it easier for us to turn off our natural human feelings for this person.
So it becomes possible for us to stand by while our armed forces kill enemy civilians because they are ‘evil’ and deserve our retribution. I suggest that we should rethink our easy use of the word ‘evil’ and be suspicious of the motives of whoever says it.

Distinguished journalist and author Phillip Knightley published the seminal text of wartime propaganda First Casualty in 2004. He has since published ten books covering some of the biggest stories of recent times. Most recently he has written his autobiography A Hack’s Progress and the critically acclaimed history Australia: A Biography of a Nation. For many years, Phillip has lived in London, where he works as a freelance journalist for publications all over the world. See