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A Meditation On 'Evil'

I watched some of the wrenching, sickening images from the chemical weapons attack in the Idlib province of Syria this week that killed scores of people, many of them children, with our daughters. I'd reached for a remote control to roll past the pictures of innocent people, including so many children — foaming, writhing and gasping to breathe. But then I thought: No, this is our world. They should see some of this.

We watched in silence. I've covered a lot of wars, but could think of nothing to say to make any sense. Finally one of our daughters asked, "Why would anyone do that?"

I have always avoided using the word "evil" when covering terrible events, even those in Bosnia and Kosovo that would later be labeled war crimes. I was of a generation educated to believe that "evil" was a cartoonish moral concept, a word we used only when we didn't know what madness or imagined infraction might drive human beings to commit murder, even on a mass scale.

As W.H. Auden put it in his poem, "September 1, 1939," written on the eve of World War II:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

I still avoid saying "evil" as a reporter. But as a parent, I've grown to feel it may be important to tell children about evil, as we struggle to explain cruel and incomprehensible behavior they may see not just in history — in whatever they will learn about the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur — but in our own times.

I've interviewed Romeo Dallaire, the former Canadian general who commanded U.N. peacekeeping forces in Rwanda in 1993 and 1994. General Dallaire discovered Hutu soldiers were getting ready to massacre Tutsi civilians. But he was prevented by U.N. leadership from using his troops to try to stop the murders before they could take place. More than 800,000 Tutsi Rwandans were then slaughtered over three months.

Romeo Dallaire said that what happened made him believe in evil, and even a force he called the devil.

"I've negotiated with him," he told us, "shaken his hand. Yes. There is no doubt in my mind ... and the expression of evil to me is through the devil and the devil at work and possessing human beings and turning them into machines of destruction. ... And one of the evenings in my office, I was looking out the window and my senses felt that something was there with me that shifted me. I think that evil and good are playing themselves out and God is monitoring and looking at how we respond to it."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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