The Face of Evil
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 5, 2002
In the flood of email that made its way into my inbox in the days following September 11th, there was one that was called “The Face of Evil”. I opened the attachment, and found a picture, which appeared to be a news photograph, one of the all-too-familiar images of the immediate results of one of the airplanes hitting the towers. There was black and gray smoke billowing from the buildings; fire and debris were reigning everywhere; crowds of people, in the deepest agony and terror, were racing away for dear life. They were familiar enough images, certainly, but if one looked closely at the top of the picture of the destroyed towers, one could discern amid the great, massive clouds of smoke the outline of an image— a face appearing in the clouds—an evil-looking, malevolent, angry face, it seemed; with an odd misshapen head, and a visage that portended doom: indeed, if Satan had a face, it could well look like this. It was a miracle—a sign—some said—the face of evil appearing above this most heinous of events.
Indeed, discerning images in clouds is a sort of Rorschach test for what we’re feeling and thinking at a given moment. So if those clouds of smoke and dust were like a universal Rorschach for our feelings at that awful time, what better image to have brooding over the mayhem in Manhattan than that of the Evil One himself?
But it’s not faces in clouds that haunt me the most. It’s more discernible, human faces that tend to trouble my sleeping and waking hours. The most threatening “faces of evil” are a lot closer to home than up in the heavens (or down in hell) somewhere. They are, rather, the faces of people who have done (and still do) unspeakably horrible things to other human beings (not to mention horrible things to the Earth itself).
They’re the faces of men like John Geoghan and Paul Shanley, and so many others, men who used their power and position as members of the clergy, servants of God, not to pray for the young, but to prey upon them—molesting children, spinning an awful web of the most vile lies and deceit, shattering dozens upon dozens of lives in the process.
They’re the faces of young men like Robert Steinhaeuser in Erfurt, Germany, or Dylan Kliebold or Eric Harris in Columbine, Colorado, or the others like them, who rush into their schools, heavily armed, and indiscriminately kill a dozen or more students, teachers, administrators in cold blood.
Or it’s the face of someone who goes to work one day and kills seven or eight or nine of his co-workers.
Or, it’s the face of a depressed young woman who could wantonly drown her five children in the bathtub one morning, one at a time, carefully wrapping each body in a sheet afterwards.
Or, hauntingly, it’s the faces of two intelligent, outgoing young men from a small town in Vermont, who travel to the house of a couple they don’t even know (two highly respected Dartmouth professors), who have done them absolutely no harm, shown them no ill will, and kill them both-- either to rob them, or “just for the thrill of it”.
This is just a handful of examples; the list could go on and on.
These are the true faces of evil, and what is most striking and haunting about them is that they’re not up in the clouds, but right here on Earth, right here among us, all too close for comfort.
The most frightening thing about these faces of evil, perhaps, is just how human they are—how “typically” human. Pedophiles like Shanley or Geoghan may have done evil things, but they don’t “look evil”. Kleibold and Harris—or Tulloch and Parker—could very easily be the “boys next door”—deeply tormented and maladjusted, perhaps, but giving every outward sign of being “just like us”. Even the great tyrants of history had recognizably human faces. One of Stalin’s biographers once described the warmth of Stalin’s face whenever he laughed, how he would break into a broad smile that would just about light up the room, and then, in the next instant, issue an order for the execution of hundreds. Even Osasma bin Laden has a human face, a strikingly human, perhaps even handsome face.
It is an extremely difficult question, this matter of human evil. Not just the question “Why do bad things happen?” – because I think we’re somehow able to accept (say) the random pain and suffering of disease or sickness, or accidents happening to innocent people, as just “things that happen”, as part of the price we pay for dwelling in a world of natural laws. The tougher question is “How can people do such terribly evil things to one another?” Evil—from where does it come? What forces create it? Why does it manifest itself in some people, but not in others? Is it something ground at the base of our natures, or something from beyond ourselves? Do people choose to do evil things, or is the choice made for them, by some power greater than themselves? The questions go on and on, and they nag at us, deep down inside…
It’s so much easier merely to frame the questions than even to try to deal with them. It is so tempting merely to take refuge in the maxim of the ancient Christian saint who said, “a comprehended God is no God”—that God’s mysteries are unknown—and that questions like that of evil are beyond our human powers to understand.
But that just won’t do for some of us, as religious people. Part of the price we pay for the gift of consciousness is our deep need to search for answers, even at the risk of our carefully-loaded theological ships capsizing, and our carefully built-up philosophical systems falling into a million bits and pieces. That’s part of the price we pay for being alive as human beings, and if we would, like Jacob, wrestle with angels, then we must be willing to wrestle with the demons among us as well.
There are those events which are so evil, so depraved, that they becomes exemplars of this incarnate Evil. When we deal with the stark questions of the evil people do—like the examples I mentioned earlier— we are obviously not dealing with matters on a rational plane. They can’t just be explained away or rationalized. In the days following September 11th, I found myself feeling real anger with some of those people with whom I usually find myself in the same left-tilting boat, politically speaking, including a couple of friends of mine. I didn’t want to hear explanations of how these attacks were the result of our misguided, myopic foreign policy. They were an attack upon our people; they were evil; and as far as I was concerned, that was the matter that needed addressing then and there. Everything else could wait. As Neil Young writes in his new song, “Let’s Roll”:
No one has the answers,
But one thing is true:
You’ve got to turn on evil,
When it’s coming after you.
You’ve got to face it down,
And when it tries to hide,
You’ve got to go in after it,
And never be denied.
Some of you might remember the last debate between the elder George Bush when he was running against our own Governor, Michael Dukakis. One of the questions, Bernard Shaw from CNN, infamously asked Governor Dukakis, a lifelone opponent of the death penalty, what he would do if his wife, Kitty, was brutally raped and murdered. Dukakis then, as you might remember, went into this long, rambling answer abut drug interdiction, and the Contadora process (whatever that was) and U.S. policies toward Panama (or some such)—and at that moment, lost the election. People sensed that you can’t approach questions of evil—especially, perhaps, evil directed against those to whom we are the closest—so coldly and deliberately and rationally.
So it is, too, that most of us react to a case like September 11th or the Zantop murders or something like them, so viscerally. It doesn’t strike us first intellectually, or cerebrally, but rather, it strikes a chord deep inside of us, perhaps even deeper than we might like to admit. For you see, the thing about Tulloch and Parker is that they weren’t aliens from another planet, or from some dastardly underworld. They weren’t even members of a different tribe, invading our domain from way off in the hills or deep in the woods, away from the watchful eyes of our society and its ways of life. They were, rather, the products of more-or-less typical, middle class, New England families, who were probably, in most respects, not that different from ours. Tulloch and Parker were not, in many respects, that different from our sons and daughters, or the friends they hang around with. That’s what scariest about the evil they did.
Remember Jeffrey Dahmer and the unspeakably terrible things he did? Jeffrey Dahmer, as twisted and depraved as his spirit must have been, was also “one of us” to a large degree. He lived in an apartment house in the middle of a large American city; he went to work; he did his job; he chatted wand exchanged pleasantries with his neighbors; he visited his relatives on holidays. Yet, all the while, he was doing these terrible things. He showed us the depths of depravity to which humanity (our humanity) could fall.
I remember browsing in a bookstore once and coming across a book about Dahmer, written by his father. It was full of family photographs, and recollections of family outings and birthday parties and Little League games. And I remember scanning the book, almost desperately, looking for something that could separate the details of Dahmer’s early life from thousands upon thousands, perhaps millions, of people like him in our society. Certainly, his life was not easy: He came from a broken home; he was the product of a divorce. No doubt, many of us, given similar conditions in our lives, would carry with us some of the scars—experience something of the lonliness, bitterness, alienation, hopelessness, rage—that Dahmer did. (As we all do carry our own scars and have our own issues with which we need to deal.) Yet only in the cases of relatively few do these issues explode with the force of evil as they did in Dahmer’s (or Parker’s or Tulloch’s or Kelibold’s or Harris’s or Steinhaeuser’s) case.
Deny it as we might—as much as we might want to fence these people off into a different class of humanity than ours—they were (or are) “one of us”. The face of evil is a hauntingly human face, and it was Hannah Arendt in her study of the Nazi war criminals who spoke of the “banality of evil”, and mused how strangely “normal” (even boring) they all seemed to have been…
Sometimes it seems as thought evil seems strangely like genius in a way. In reading the biographies of great men and women (something I love to do), it has oftentimes amazed me how ordinary their parents were; how unexceptional their upbringing was; how plebian their education—and yet: genius emerges. Look at Shakespeare- or Beethoven-- or Madame Curie—to name just three. Just this week I finished a biography of the great writer, Jack Kerouac. Kerouac was the product of a destitute, alcoholic, French-Canadian home in the working class slums of Lowell. Why did he, of all people, emerge as one of the America’s greatest writers of the 20th Century, the great bard of the “Beat” generation that followed the Second World War? Why is it that you can take a certain combination of nature and nurture, which in most of us will produce but the most ordinary of lives, yet within certain souls will either flower in genius or explode in evil.
Some say that the different angels of our natures are fighting it out inside of us, the good angel and the bad angel. Some religions, like Zoroastrianism, even say it’s two different gods at work. Christianity, traditionally, is not as direct, but it borrows the evil god from Zoroastrianism (pitchfork, long tail, horns, and all) and then spends centuries trying to explain how, in fact there’s only one God, of course, but that there’s also a “Fallen Angel” at work here in earthly affairs as well. (The fact that he’s not a god doesn’t keep the Evil One from pretty much holding his own, though.)
Another tradition, closer to home for many of us, perhaps, views evil simply as “the absence of good”. God created everything, this school of thought affirms; God is good; therefore, everything God created (that is,everything) is good. The power of evil (sometimes called Satan) can create nothing that is not of God; therefore, Evil is not something created by some outer malevolent force, but is, rather, the absence of God’s goodness and God’s grace. I believe it was Kahlil Gibran who used the image of sunlight streaming into the windows of a house: those parts of the room which sunlight strikes and illuminates are like goodness, but those dark corners where the light cannot reach are what we call “evil”. Evil is the unilumined portion of the human soul.
This explanation makes sense, it seems to me, when we are looking at what might be called the “garden variety” “little” evils of our existence—the sins of omission and commission that we commit against each other. Sin, in this sense, is alienation from God, or if you prefer, alienation from one’s Higher Power, or one’s true self, or deepest ideals and aspirations. When the light of God (or of Truth) is cast before our “sins”, we can sense this imbalance within our beings (that’s conscience), and we can choose, then, whether to keep committing these “little evils”, or we can stop doing them.
Most of the time, for most of us, this explanations works. It fills the bill. But when I look at something like the Dartmouth murders—or the case of Jeffrey Dahmer—or the school shootings in Columbine or Erfurt—or certainly, at something like September 11th—or the Holocaust—or some of the crimes against humanity committed in the name of our own government throughout our history—then there seems to be something more active at work here than “the absence of good”. Perhaps what it is is the perversion of good or the misuse of our deepest humanity. Perhaps what is at work here is the very Force itself—the Force of Life—the creative, dynamic, energizing, birthing Spirit of Life itself—twisted and turned, away from its originally intended creative impetus, and toward destruction and evil instead.
There is within us, I believe, not two different angels or gods, one good and one evil, fighting it out in a dualistic battle for control of Creation. There is within each of us, rather, one Force of life, unitary and universal—the Force which was with us at the birth of this universe and flows through us today. Each one of us brings this Force to life in human history. When it emerges in us in the form of relationships that nurture and care and love—in the form of new creations of art and science and literature and workmanship that celebrate our blessedness and glorify our Creator—then this force within us is, indeed, Divine, and the god or goddess grows into harmony with the God or Goddess beyond.
But when this Force of Life within us is somehow stifled—when it is given insufficient warmth and nurture and love—when society allows no means of creative expression and worthwhile work—and worst of all, perhaps, when there is no hope, no meaning, nothing to live for—then should it come as any surprise to us, then, that this Force within grows cold and hard and deadening, and emerges not as something Divine, but as something Demonic instead?
Rebecca West once write that “The fear of life is the beginning of all evil.” Or as A. Powell Davies put it: “We have [within us] the temptation to be good, but so often, we resist that temptation.” “Our spiritual task is to confront the evil that lies within us,” said Gandhi. “The only devils in this world are those running around in our hearts.” And Gordon McKeeman once said: “The problem comes in getting people to understand how big their self really is.”
In the face of great evil, may we cling together and may we comfort one another. And may we always remember how large our souls truly are—and may we choose to fill our souls with works of beauty and love and justice.