So, yesterday I raised the subject of fear as it is related to the diverse world reactions to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and Israel’s conflict in Gaza. I noted my belief that fear is the root of most evil. Today I’d like to talk about evil stemming from fear, not as an active behavior, but as a passive one. That is the type of evil in which most people engage, and in fact is the behavior exhibited by most of the world with regard to Flight 17. But it is also, I think, the type of behavior exhibited toward Israel. In the case of Flight 17, silent appeasement is the reaction because the weak — the appeasers — fear the strong. Those who are silent believe Russia can actively hurt them. In the case of Israel, passive fear takes on a different dimension because it is in some real way fear of the weak. Israel cannot hurt the rest of the world, despite the generalized fear the Gaza conflict causes. In this case, the evil reaction may stem from guilt at inaction, and results in demonization as rationalization.
People who are unafraid rarely engage in evil behavior, or so I will suggest. They don’t, at least in part, because they don’t need to (or don’t think they need to) in order to achieve their goals. This statement is almost certain to raise immediate objection, because everybody can think of a list of people who appeared unafraid –self-confident and self-assured — but who in fact have done evil. Hitler and Stalin may come to mind. But I’m not talking about sociopaths or psychopaths. And while I am not an expert in mental health, I suspect that most people who appear to be fearless and engage in what we might consider evil behavior are in fact not so confident. If they were, they wouldn’t engage in that behavior because, as noted, they wouldn’t have to, or wouldn’t think they’d have to.
In any event, I am less interested in extreme cases of genocide and world dominance than I am in what Hannah Arendt controversially described as the banality of evil. And I’m not even interested in Arendt’s case of somebody like Eichmann, who actively engaged in extraordinarily awful behavior. I’m more interested in ordinary people, people who would never perceive themselves as doing anything wrong at all, people for whose behavior there is at least a patina of deniability. I am interested in omission rather than commission. And I am especially interested in the stories we tell to assuage our guilt at our passivity stemming from fear.
I think that inaction in the face of wrongdoing or injustice is, perhaps, the most pernicious kind of evil, because it is the most prevalent. Most people don’t actively engage in wrongdoing. The famous Kitty Genovese murder comes to mind as perhaps the classic example of passivity, where so many people were witnesses that none stepped forward to prevent it. A common explanation is that each person felt absolved of responsibility because somebody else could have (but didn’t) intervene. But fear, obviously, is another explanation. Involvement meant possible harm, hence passivity.
It’s pretty obvious that this passivity from fear is the dominant reaction. That’s why we make heroes of those who actually interject themselves into situations of potential harm to help somebody else. Heroism wouldn’t be conferred if that were the quotidian response. That kind of heroism is not only conferred in situations of physical danger, however. It is also conferred on those who stand up to denounce unfairness and injustice, whether it occurs on a large public stage (Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King), or in a venue as ordinary as the workplace, where a particular employee may be singled out for unfair treatment. People just don’t want to get involved.
Now, the really interesting phenomenon is what happens when people abjure involvement in situations where they know a person (or people or group of people) is being maltreated because of fear or self-protection. I suspect that most people know that their non-involvement, whatever their rationalization, stems from fear. That realization leads people to feel guilt. On some level, they know they shouldn’t tolerate injustice. But guilt is a heavy burden. Hence, denial of guilt through rationalization of inaction is the common response.
This denial of guilt can take a number of different forms. Perhaps the less self-aware among us simply can feel absolved of responsibility because it just isn’t their problem. Common, as well, is the assertion of inability to help. “What can I do? I have no power.” This — especially in the tolerance of unfairness or injustice — is an extremely easy cop-out, but often untrue. Unfairness and injustice often — not always, but often — melt in the face of even mild objection. So people do in fact have power. Hyper-rationalization is another defense. The passive person looks for the justification in the behavior of the perpetrator of unfairness and injustice. He teases out reasons for bad behavior that likely don’t even convince him, but are close enough for comfort. Some of this is going on in the world reaction to Israel. Ignoring Hamas’s horrific behavior, we look to the legitimate complaints of Gazans to help us repress our knowledge of Palestinian terrorism and Israel’s legitimate response, in order to make it easier to criticize Israel.
A final form of denial is demonization. This, I think, clearly is occurring in the case of Israel. Demonization is mostly easily accomplished from some distance, because it involves at least to some degree the dehumanization of the person being demonized, although it can occur at closer distance as well. (The only important thing is that the demonizer not be in the physical presence of the demon.) In its mildest form, demonization takes the form of the argument that the person suffering unfair treatment did something to deserve it, thus justifying the injustice and assuaging the guilt of the passive. While the person suffering the injustice might in fact have done something that the perpetrator claims justifies the injustice, the demonizer amplifies her understanding of that action to make the victim appear more culpable. It is, for example, clear that Israel has caused a disastrous number of civilian deaths in Gaza. Much of world reaction has been to take that fact, ignoring Israel’s extraordinary vulnerability, it’s entire history of terrorism by the Arab world, Hamas’s bombing of Israel, etc., and assuaging our collective guilt at our inaction by demonizing Israel.
Collective guilt, you might ask? Yes. We don’t really acknowledge it, but Israel and the Middle East conflict is everybody’s problem. Israel is necessary because of the world’s treatment of Jews for 2,000 years. This is an uncomfortable fact. Israel exists in a place that is, to say the least, awkward in terms of history, convenience, affinity, etc. This is why there is conflict. But instead of active help- specifically, in the case of Gaza, the world helping to build an economic Palestinian state in the 9 years since Israel voluntarily left — we watch, we remain passive, and we blame. I think that when we blame Israel excessively, we are using the trope of demonization to assuage our guilt at our passivity born of fear. The sources and depth of that fear are for another day.