19 February, 2008

Evil and Good and Shades of Gray

"The Wolf" at Blackfive pointed us to a mind-bending post by Michael Totten the other day, and I followed the embedded links deeper into Totten's site. Here's what I came away with:

Short of the occasional psychotic serial killer on a spree that makes national news, or the most horrific cases of child abuse, most of us in America are not confronted with true evil on a regular basis. We read about (or in one case for me, know about) how damaged are children who grow up in an environment of unspeakable abuse, but those are the are exceptions that prove the rule we like to believe is the norm. Here in our largely safe and well-structured society, we get to pretend that humanity, despite it's great capacity for selfishness and narcissism, isn't really that bad, all-in-all. And so we look at places like Iraq and think, "What is wrong with those people?" or, "How barbaric/unmotivated they must be to not instantly adopt the Western sensibilities that come so naturally to us."

A response to such ideas can be found in a couple of posts by Totten. Almost two years ago he wrote about a former "prison" of Saddam Hussein's secret police (now a museum) he toured in northern Iraq:

Dozens of people were packed into single caged cells. This one, pictured below, needed to have blood scrubbed off the walls before it could be opened to visitors.

...10,725 people were killed in this one building alone. All died during torture. Formal execution actually took place in Abu Ghraib.

More recently, he toured a current jail (temporary holding site for accused criminals) run entirely by the Iraqis:
“This is the room for minors,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “They're treated better.”

They are? The cell was the size of my living room. Two dozen children lived in this place. They slept on the floor on blankets and had no personal space whatsoever. The kids were grubby, but they didn't appear beaten down or even in bad spirits necessarily.

He moves on to a cell of adults:
There was no furniture. Most men sat on blankets and carpets. A few near the door cautiously stood up to greet us, but they did not shake our hands. They seemed slightly wary, and had a weird look of innocence on their faces, almost like the kids in the previous room who really were mostly innocent.

And finally, a roomful of those suspected/accused of being al Qaeda:

Not all Middle Eastern terrorists are alike. I have been inside Hezbollah’s headquarters south of Beirut. I brushed shoulders with Hamas leaders in the Palestinian parliament, although I was there to interview other people. Never once did I worry that the Lebanese or Palestinian terrorists would actually harm me. Al Qaeda is different. These guys are like Arabic Hannibal Lectors.

“Is it safe to be in here?” I said.

“Well,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “There’s five cops. And me.”

Last summer in Ramadi I met a handful of detainees who were suspected of being Al Qaeda. They looked like doofuses who couldn’t get a date or a job.

Most of the men in this room looked like they were perfectly willing to murder us all with their hands. I could see it in their eyes, in the sinister way some of them squinted at me, in the tightness of their jaw muscles. I wished I had a gun of my own.

Should we have even been standing there in the first place? More than 50 potential killers all but surrounded us. They sat on the floor, but some of them were less than three feet away.

“The nastiest ones are the little guys,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “The little rat-looking bastards. They're the ones who have done the worst things to people.”

Totten ends the post with a mind-blower of a statement that makes the entire post worth reading. But what tied things all together for me was a statement by a commenter on the first post I linked, referring back to the conditions of prisons under Hussein's rule:
When we first got to Abu Ghraib, the MPs had been at work for a month and a half making the place habitable for human beings. After 45 days, they hadn't even touched the execution building. I can't even describe it. Rumsfeld showed about about two weeks later to inspect the prison as a whole, and make sure it was up to our standards for a detention facility... He walked in to the execution building, came back out 30 seconds later, and ordered the place walled off until engineers could arrive to demolish it.

What was so horrifying about that building that he wanted it walled off and then demolished? "It's just a building..." Surely it could be cleaned up and put to good use.

But I'm not so sure about that. I believe good and evil (and shades of gray in-between) exist and act on people who are immersed in one or the other, or hold it to their hearts--for example, the Christian tradition believes we are changed by what we behold, and even moreso by our reactions to the vision.

Our military fights a physical war, and does it very well. But I suspect the Iraqis are also engaged in a spiritual war. Blackfive has written of radiating circles of influence in the context of the great things collectively done in support of our warfighters. But it works on the evil side of the chart, too... Evil radiating from people and places like those associated with the execution building of Abu Ghraib.