Evil can surround us and we can be so involved in our own affairs that we fail to see it for what it is. Recall what poet W. H. Auden wrote about the place of evil in the paintings of the Old Masters:
. . . how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window
or just walking dully along.
Two Bosnian Serb soldiers were convicted of war crimes by courts martial in Saravejo and sentenced to death. The photograph of Borislav Herak, 22, and Stretko Damjanovic, 32, shows them to be two very ordinary-looking men. It is their ordinariness that is so striking. If you passed them on the street they would not get a second glance. No doubt they have mothers who love them and perhaps brothers and sisters, maybe even wives and children. Herak alone confessed to murdering 35 people and to 16 rapes. Why do ordinary people do such evil things?
Evil is not too popular as a concept, but I know that it surely exists. I have been to war and have seen too much of it to ignore it. Evil is conveniently embraced as an expediency to a goal, and just as conveniently it is overlooked by good people. In the 1930s, some Americans overlooked the atrocities of Stalin to embrace the egalitarian claims of Soviet Communism. In the 1940s, Californians were eager to rid their communities of Japanese-Americans. How many politicians and bureaucrats hid in fear of the wild claims of Joe McCarthy, instead of confronting him? Did any member of Lyndon Johnson's Cabinet resign in protest of his buildup in Vietnam? But neither can we forget the 3,000 leaders and residents of Hue, Vietnam, executed in 1968 by the captors of that besieged city. The millions murdered in Cambodia have received no justice. In Europe today, neo-fascists are re-creating the nightmare with killings, beatings and bombings. Kurdish men, women and children were gassed by Saddam Hussein.
In American cities and small towns today there are drugs and gangs. Teen-agers shoot each other just for the convenience of it. As I wrote this, a pregnant woman was stabbed to death because someone wanted her car.
Night after night we see what remains of Bosnia being further destroyed. When Herak agreed with the judge that he deserved the death penalty, he made a very ordinary request. He wanted cigarettes. So ordinary.
With few exceptions, the people who participate in evil are very ordinary. The extraordinary people are the ones trying to do something about it. But it is so hard. Where do you jump in?
What happens when good people do nothing? What happens when good people actually see evil and do not speak? I suppose we will live the rest of our lives with the consequences of our inaction. What will it be like for the good person who stood by and failed to find the voice to protest the madness?
W. H. Auden had it right. The sharp eyes of the Old Masters accurately recorded how easy it is to ignore evil. Nothing has changed. We may eat a sandwich while watching the latest horrors on the 6 p.m. news. If it bores us, we turn to another cable channel or go for another sandwich until the happy weatherman comes on.