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The extinction of Bin Laden and cultures of “evil”

That Bin Laden has been killed instead of being brought to a jury is not surprising -it was well known that there wouldn’t have been any other option then annihilation in dealing with him. Still, inspired by the reflection in my sister’s blog post, I also kind of mourn Bin Laden’s death.

Young Osama
Young Osama

It’s not a matter of respect for human life, or of human rights (after all it has been a warfare action, and you put these things mostly aside in warfare); nor it is a matter of sympathy for Bin Laden or for radical islamism (which is something I despise totally -heck, as a militant atheist I have no sympathy for moderate Islam or any other kind of religion as well). No, the problem is that we have lost a window on something we, after all, do not really know. We will never know what was in Bin Laden’s mind.

It is often said that evil fascinates people, yet we often make no effort to really understand what “evil” essentially is. We keep this on the outside, reassuring ourselves that it is “evil”, making ourselves feeling better. Let’s take the most obvious example, that is, Nazism. We see the horror of Nazism and we first refuse it as something unthinkable, unconceivable by human minds. Then we build psychological, economical etc. explanations of what happened, but we still keep it in the realm of evil. We seldom ask to ourselves: what does it mean to be a Nazist? What makes one think that Nazism is correct?

When we attempt to think about this, we attribute it to psychopathy, or to some dull obeyance to hierarchy, evilness. Or, as Hannah Arendt told us, to some numbness of the mind, to some grey,bureaucratic normalization process. We simply cannot believe that you can be a nice, clever person and a Nazist at the same time. Most important, we cannot think you can be, for example, a Nazi ideologue and a nice person at the same time. It is unthinkable to most of us. If you say “yes, we should kill Jews”, you’re automatically Evil.

This holds for most Unspeakable Evils we have today: nazi/fascists, pedophiles, religious fundamentalists. We fight them, we despise them, we annihilate them: yet what does it mean to be one of them?

There is a deep hiatus between what actions are for us and what they are for who does them. To cross it, we have to go and understand what the Enemy thinks, and trying to think like it. An exercise that, if done with an objective mind, often reveals that the Evil acts as such for motivations which are not so “evil”, at least on the inside.

One of the Unspeakable Evils I’ve grown a deep fascination for is the post-war radical right. While I am very far, politically, from the radical right, I was always unsatisfied with the stereotype of the “nazi racist thug” that left-wing people (like me) tend to take as the beginning and end of all. And when you actually begin to read about the ideology and evolution of the radical right thought, you discover, yes, that there are thugs indeed, but that there is also a richness and subtleness of intellectual and philosphical roots and developments that are hugely far away from our simplistic stereotypes. And we may also discover unexpected points of contact between “them” and “us”. We can discover for example that yes, there is racism in some radical right discourse (and in many of the most politically relevant electorates/movements), but there is also a philosophical reflection on the effect of globalization on the preservation of cultures that is far from trivial or from being easily dismissed as “racism in disguise”. We discover that, after all, they are just people with different axioms and different views on the world. Axioms and views that we can resolutely reject, for sure, but that are not the product of an evil or twisted or dumb mind.

And also, what about racism? Racism is wrong, meaning that biological research knows that there are no serious grounds for it, and even if it was the case we have grown an ethical framework for which enslaving/rejecting/discriminating other people is, in general, wrong. Yet the world is full of racisms and other discriminatory attitudes. Fighting them with simple rejection and despise helps, but only until a certain point. If we don’t understand why millions of perfectly normal, perfectly loving and even bright people can be racist, we simply put the problem under the carpet. We do nothing to understand why such attitudes surface, what is human, normal and primeval of them. For xenophobia is a protective instict first and foremost, one that after all probably was instrumental in human survival, and as such it is not intrinsically evil in intentions and origin. It leads to tragic ideologies and consequences, but this is an external perspective, not within. The xenophobe probably just wants to protect himself and his community, and feels puzzled and outraged if someone of his own community denies his right to do so.

There is not only ideological evil, like terrorism, of course. Simple criminals, even psychos, have always something to teach. From what is the substrate where criminal behaviour has grown, to what is within the criminal mind, and getting the unique view from within. Every serial rapist, no matter how an horrible person he is, is anyway a part of what it means of being human, of a part of us. They are not Martians. Understanding them allows us to understand us as well.

Make no mistake, this is no justification or faking that evil doesn’t exist. Most people aren’t ethical (including probably myself, somehow). The points are different: 1)given the pervasiveness of evil (whatever comes under this vague and relative definition), understanding it and even communicating with it helps to understand all of us and to solve it 2)sometimes what we tag as “evil” is not so black-and-white and contains elements that in other contexts are perfectly normal and even positive.

That’s why the death of Bin Laden, although politically and strategically unavoidable, is a tragic loss. Because it’s a unique character in the spectrum of humankind and it’s a highly symbolic, unique history -the son of a wealthy, westernized family that becomes a radical islamist, after all renouncing to freedom and safety to pursue a complex, uncompromising but subtle, alien-to-the-West ideological agenda. I highly doubt he was a simple “mad criminal”, like he was the evil boss of some James Bond plot. He was probably a complex character if there was ever one. And now he’s lost, forever, like an extinct species.


  1. I agree completely, but you know that.

  2. Giovanni Giovanni

    I partly agree, as I believe the concept “we could have had a deep alien mind to look into” is a totally false illusion, an illusion that just makes you feel better. You would just have got nothing from him. People that is trained and willing to live months, years, closed in a room and hiding (like they to, this for instance was an Hamas head ((mostrly funny – killed in the moment he came out by Tsahal)) or happy to explode and die, well brother, will never come to you and tell you how things are. That is the main point why taking him alive, would have a positive political cascade effects but no knowledge consequence at all. Good post however.

  3. will never come to you and tell you how things are.

    I guess that the USA government therefore keeps people in Guantanamo just for the lulz.

    The thing is, even if they lie to you, the very fact that they do (and how) is data.

  4. I agree. Communication, in living human beings, is not a choice.

  5. giovanni giovanni

    I thought a lot to that all along the week end. You guys are just living in the clouds, imho. Or maybe wejust have growth through totally different cultural perspectives.

  6. I don’t get it. Why clouds? I think much more “cloudy” the shallow, action-movie-like illusion that a guy like Bin Laden is just an empty shell of evilness and fanaticism. And even if it was exactly like that, well, isn’t it interesting in itself?

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