There is evil.
Our forebears knew this. But, as moral people, they sought to bind it, and repress it; to weed it out so that their children would be more safe from it. They fought battles of the flesh and battles of the spirit, that they and those to come would neither need to embrace nor have to fear evil.
We knew this. Evil is bound up in the hearts of men. But our people like their parents strive to be good and kind, and the evil that touched us did so lightly and infrequently. Bad things happened to other people, happened far away... weren't really so bad.
We have been reminded.
To do evil is never far from our hands. It is our ability not to lift them that marks us as civilized. We need not bow to anger. And when we or our people do evil because of anger, we can still forgive them, because although they have done evil they did so because they were weak. Their anger rode them and they did evil. Perhaps they gave in to fear, or to grief, or even to greed. And them we punish, we correct, perhaps we try to help.
But it is within our power to do evil for its own sake. Not because we are spurred by our baser needs, and surrender ourselves to them and do the things that they whisper will satiate us. We can marshal ourselves to commit acts of the most infamous and despicable type, not because we must but because we want to.
And that is when we become evil.
The Western Democracies did not fight the Germans and the Japanese sixty years ago because we knew what they had become. We fought them because we realized that they would never stop their programme of conquest and subjugation. It was only afterwards, when we had seen Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, had known Bataan and Nanking, that we truly acknowledged that here was evil. And we had beaten it, and in doing so did not become what we had beheld.
For we had taken up their tools. We had informed the citizens of Dresden, a German city of no great military significance, that we would be bombing the city, but that they should flee to the city's central park, where they would be safer. Whereupon we firebombed the park, killing one hundred and thirty-five thousand civilians in an evening.
But our purpose was not to murder Germans. Our purpose was to win the war, and to destroy forever the government which had threatened the world. And in our need, we had siezed upon the same tools that our enemies used, and we did evil. Because the tools of evil are the tools of the strong, and a people cannot be strong if they cannot do evil. But we never became evil thereby.
And since then, we have done evil, and evil has been done to us, but those who have embraced evil have become rarer in the world. The Khmer Rouge butchered twenty percent of the entire population of their country, but they were far away and unimportant to us. Croats and Serbians and Albanians murder each other in a cycle that seems to turn slowly, but never really stops. And the Soviet Union became less evil and less potent with every passing decade, until it collapsed into history. It seemed that civilization and the rejection of evil ways might shine into every crevasse of the world.
But to do evil is never far from our hands.
We can only pretend to understand the men who murdered five thousand people last week. Because they had chosen to do evil for its own sake, and had taken it into their hearts, and become evil themselves. We do not want to understand them. For they were evil, and they were wrong.
And when we take up the tools of the strong, and commit evil ourselves, we must do so and we shall do so not because we wish to do evil, but because we wish to stop the doing of evil. Because behind the strength of our hands is the strength of our belief. And we know that to do murder is wrong, and even if we do murder ourselves we do it despite and because we know that it is wrong.
It is terrifyingly sobering to see that men of evil can reach into our lives so very quickly. I, and I believe we, had forgotten that.
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra