The evil among us

I’ve just started reading a book so fascinating that I just have to write some thoughts on the matter. I am probably going to write more on the same topic later. A small book about evil by Ann Heberlein raises some important questions in what has been a central philosphical and theological debate at all times, but has been ignored in recent years.

The debate “the problem of evil” has historically had two extremes. The great paradox it is that evil exists in a world that is good because it was created by God, has often been explained with the devil/demons influencing people to do evil. The opposite position claims that there are no evil people; only evil circumstances. Both are really unsatisfactory because they neither make us responsible or encourage us to change behaviour. It’s almost as if evil doesn’t concern us. It’s the evil’s problem; not ours. We always have a choice, however, and I personally think Christianity has an important function in terms of teaching us to make the correct choices. We see time and again that being a church goer doesn’t automatically make you a better person. There was just a headline in one of the Norwegian newspapers about a priest who embezzled more than $ 1,8 million from the Christian foundation he was working for. There are also many individual terrorists and terrorist organizations that claimed a Christian identity, but that doesn’t mean the religion failed. These people failed. That seems obvious to me.

We live in a time when people prefer to face evil without God, except that they haven’t really confronted evil. There is no room for evil in this world view because the concept of evil in their opinion is purely religious. The evil and the evil one don’t exist. There are no people we can describe as evil. That was the attitude until a few years ago at least, including in the USA. That was before 9/11. It was a very tolerant and inclusive attitude. According to moral relativism no opinions or actions are absolute. Nothing is either right or wrong. What is right for me in my culture is wrong for someone living in another culture. A certain act is good if I think it is. The author Russ Shafer pointed out in the book Whatever happened to good end evil? that something happened to the American mentality after the terrorist attack in 2001. It wasn’t that evil didn’t exist in their consciousness, but from that point they were more inclined to use the words good and evil.

In a morally relativistic perspective one must consider terrorism from the terrorists’ point of view. Cultural relativism is a natural consequence of moral relativism, which means that all cultures are equal, but each community must be judged according to their own terms. So we should try to understand the terrorists. Clearly this was not the first point on the list of priorities after 9/11 in the USA or the Utøya-murders in Oslo. Suddenly tolerance became a lot harder.

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson have been among my biggest heroes since my early teens. It was reassuring knowing that some was smarter than the criminals.
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson have been among my biggest heroes since my early teens. It was reassuring knowing that someone was smarter than the criminals.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I have often wondered why some of the most peaceful people in the world are so fascinated by evil. It seems like Scandinavians and the British have an insatiable appetite for crime. We might be seeing a similar mechanism as in horror films or a roller coaster. This is a way to experience what we feel as grave danger, but without actually being in danger. Crime adds another perspective. Crime stories are mostly about ordinary people and ordinary situations. The characters in an Inspector Lynley Mystery for example find themselves in situations that could happen to any of us, except that they have probably killed the entire population. They certainly must have done in the series Midsomer Murders where they found enough murder plots in a few villages in the fictional county of Midsomer to maintain a pretty good quality for 18 seasons, and i believe it’s still running. We sort of face our own killer while we are safe and comfortable in our own house, and heroes like Kurt Wallander, Thomas Lynley, Miss Fisher or Hercule Poirot restore balance. We can retire for the night knowing that evil lost again.

It could be fear that fuels the interest for this genre, although many read and watch crime as a nice family activity. It has for some reason become a part of our favourite entertainment. Norwegian authorities allowed cable and satellite dishes in the early 1980’s, but I grew up with just one TV channel, the state channel (equivalent to PBS). I was always looking forward to Friday nights because that was crime night. It would be teenagers idea of hell today, but one channel, cinema and video rental stores made me content 30 years ago.

I have only read 20 pages of A small book about evil, and I’m looking forward to the rest. One of the things I want to reflect a little more on is the relationship between fiction and reality. Good crime authors want their stories to be realistic, so they do a lot of research (although European crime series on TV focus less on the forensic science). Reality has influenced literature, but has literature and TV influenced reality? This could be a problem if members of a jury expect the science from CSI to be available to the police for example. I really liked the revenge in the Swedish books in the Millennium trilogy about Lisbeth Salander. She solved the case and made sure that the people doing the evil were punished, but is this advisable?

Do you remember the band Eagles of Death Metal? They had a concert in Paris where Muslim terrorists killed a lot of people, and one of the band members recently commented the massacre. He believes that until no one has any weapons everybody should be armed. I guess that would deter many people, but there is a reason why vigilantism is a common theme in crime stories. In the stories it’s not uncommon that they kill someone innocent. I vaguely remember an episode of both Criminal Minds and A Touch of Frost where a man believed to be a pedophile was attacked. A registry for sex offenders has saved many children, but the definition of what a registerable sex offense is, is wider than many realize. Assault, burglary, public indecency (which could be a lot of things) and even children playing doctor qualify in some states, so it doesn’t necessarily give us accurate information. The problem with people wanting to get revenge would cease to exist if the police and prosecutors did a better job of protecting innocent people, and actually tried to release less violent prisoners.

I haven’t read any crime novels for a while, except for Agatha Christie’s two heroes and Sherlock Holmes. I’ve been reading crime for 30 years and was tired of it for a while, but I am going to read with a different pair of glasses in the next few weeks. What does literature say about us? Literature, TV and films can give us insights into the ethical reflections that are important to us. There’s probably an interaction. Books and films are popular because we see something familiar, but I think pop culture also influences us. I want to think some more about this, and in the meantime, do you have any thoughts on the relationship between fiction and reality?

One thought on “The evil among us

  1. I often urge my children to carefully consider the themes in the books they encounter. I do believe there is most definitely a connection between the fiction and the author’s perception of reality.

    Many works will correctly acknowledge the problem of evil…and the corresponding need for good…although few seem to offer a satisfying solution.

    Ultimately, even if I disagree with the point of a book, I still can gain valuable insight into the way other people view the world.

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