Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What is Evil?

Greetings Friends,

For the past week, Canada has been preoccupied with Russell Williams. He's the Canadian Forces colonel who murdered two women, raped others, and broke into 80 homes near the Ontario Canadian Forces base at which he was in charge. He plead guilty to all the charges levelled at him, was stripped of his rank, pay and medals (but not his pension), and will spend the rest of his natural life behind bars. I'm not trying to make light of the situation by using a picture of Mike Myers as the "Dr. Evil" character from his Austin Powers films. Just looking at pictures of Russell Williams gives me the creeps, and I have no wish to denigrate my blog with his image.

Richard Handler, the Ideas Guy at CBC, wrote this column on CBC's web site yesterday, debating the use of the word "evil" to describe Williams. I agree with his opinion that evil is hard to quantify, and the comparison he made of Williams to Robert Louis Stevenson's famous literary characters, "the rational Dr. Jekyll, and the murderous Mr. Hyde". Truly, Russell Williams was leading the quintessential double life.

Handler goes on to make the typical theological comparisons between good and evil, but those always ring hollow to my ears. The most devout people often have sinister sides to them, as do those who are secular for the most part. Religion and morality have little to do with the capacity to do harm to other human beings, whether it involves murder, or other dastardly deeds. The person is ultimately responsible for their actions. The trigger, I believe, comes from within, and the wrath exhibited by the individual has nothing to do with the God of Abraham, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, whoever. It has to do with the misfiring of synapses that causes the person to commit abhorrent acts. Those acts can be murder, rape, robbery, or infliction of other types of physical and emotional distress. But do those actions really constitute true evil?

Handler, talented writer that he is, sought out the opinions of Terry Eagleton, a prominent British literary critic, and author of more than 40 books. His most recent, On Evil, offers an argument about the existence of evil, and what constitutes true evil. We've all used evil as an adjective to describe people, things, places, times...but when we call something evil, does that mean it is truly evil? Your guess is as good as mine.

God and literary criticism notwithstanding, nothing will ever stop us from referring to people and things as "evil". We may think it is an accurate descriptor, but more often than not, we will be off the mark by quite a bit. To understand the root causes of someone's torment is not something most of us have the time or the inclination to contemplate. In the case of Russell Williams, I'm sure the Canadian prison system will be analyzing his behaviour quite closely over the course of the rest of his life, to see if there is anything they can glean from his actions. Right now, he's shown no remorse for what he's done, but I'm sure that will change once the scientists get a hold of him. I only hope that by studying him, there will be some good that will come that might be of use, to help those who may not be at the same level of wickedness, but who might be warming up in the tormented bullpen.

I'm one of those people who wants to know the root causes of abhorrent behaviour. Depending on the scenario, I seek them out so I can learn from them. I'm no saint or angel by any means, but when someone's not right, their behaviour is a dead giveaway. Thankfully, I've never had exposure to someone like Russell Williams, but I do, unfortunately, have experience in the realm of having emotional distress inflicted on me by others. Are those people evil? I don't know.


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