"Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it!"
Or should it be "Leftovers: the Evil?" At any rate, moral outrage, like revenge, is probably a dish best served cold.
When I think about the Mumbai murderers, I realize that indignation, in its simplifications and its threatened demarcations of "us" and "them," can be too pleasurable for our own good. But Scott Simon's commentary at NPR agrees, vis a vis evil, that some acts are so heinous that no adjective will better serve. As he points out, for the truly evil, there are no innocents; in that sense, perhaps evil is itself a theory of human nature (a theory that, despicable in itself, views human beings as inevitably despicable).
Ironically, these Mumbai horrors feel worse than suicide bombings (even those that, like 9/11, killed far more people) because they were so much more cold-blooded and required sustained, ongoing deliberation. The suicide bomber must of course massively rationalize his act, but he knows that he won't be around to witness the suffering and mayhem he generates. Accounts in Mumbai agree that these people went out of their way to kill indiscriminately at point-blank range--the old, the young, women, men, it didn't matter. Consider how much effort it surely must have taken to suppress any stirrings of empathy as the killers methodically went from room to room. These actions were evil in a very intellectual sort of way.
That these acts presumably had political ends makes them no less evil. I used to think that the routine denunciations of such atrocities by the President and other heads of state was fairly absurd, stating the obvious. But I'm starting to think that nothing can be taken for granted morally any longer, and the world needs these "routine" restatements of what the civilized realm holds to be justified or unjustified. If we want to "despise the sin, not the sinner," that is fine with me. Evil is the ultimate diagnosis, I suppose, so let us label behavior, not persons. But let us label certain kinds of behavior unambiguously and not bring in extenuating factors of upbringing, biology, or political ideology.
A recent book I need to pick up is the philosopher Susan Neiman's Moral Clarity (her Evil in Modern Thought of a couple of years ago was both accessible and illuminating). Without resorting to simple-minded dichotomies, we need guidelines in a world of increasing moral murk, in which the more we know, or think we know, about the infinite complexities of culture and biology threatens to generate Hegel's "night in which all cows are black."
I am no Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), but his epitaph has been on my mind lately:
Hic depositum est Corpus
JONATHAN SWIFT S.T.D.
Huyus Ecclesiae Cathedralis
Ubi saeva Indignatio
Cor lacerare nequit,
Et imitare, si poteris,
Strenuum pro virili
Translated by William Butler Yeats as:
Swift has sailed into his rest,
savage indignation there
cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
He served human liberty.
Addendum 11:39: It occurs to me that evil is the obscene negative, in the moral realm, of what God is in the metaphysical realm. It seems that both must exist, even if, disappointingly, as sociological necessities.