When we journalists write about politics, we tend to focus on the rational. In our efforts to help readers understand current events, we strive to explain the calculus of power: who has it, who wants it, how it is acquired and maintained. In the process, we usually try to avoid too much outright moralizing, because that might make us look sentimental or subjective.
But there are times when our cautious political vocabulary fails us — and now is one of those times. We are experiencing a moment when many events can be described only with the word “evil.”
In a recent interview, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad boasted that he had reached a “major understanding” with Arab countries that have treated him as an outcast due to his brutal prosecution of his country’s seven-year civil war. The war has killed some half a million of his compatriots and turned millions of others into refugees. Yet now Assad is preparing to celebrate “victory.” He remains in power — though his country lies in ruins around him and most of his fellow Syrians are homeless, traumatized, lost. Evil is arrogant.
A young Bulgarian journalist has been raped and murdered. We don’t yet know who committed this crime, but we can be sure that Viktoria Marinova’s investigations into corruption had something to do with it. Her country is plagued by organized-crime groups, so it’s likely her killers will never face justice. Evil rejoices in impunity.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize to two campaigners against sexual violence, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege. Murad, a Yazidi from northern Iraq, is a campaigner for survivors of sexual slavery at the hands of the Islamic State, that fanatical jihadist group that considers its work so sacred that no atrocity is beneath it. (She is a survivor herself.) Mukwege treated women victimized by marauding militias in eastern Congo, a part of the world that has endured decades of ferocious conflict fueled by the lure of lucrative natural resources. Evil loves chaos.
It may be that I am especially sensitive to such stories right now because of the sickening news about my Post colleague Jamal Khashoggi, a leading Saudi journalist who disappeared last week after visiting his country’s consulate in Istanbul. Though his fate remains unclear, informed sources are saying he has been killed. We can only hope it isn’t so.
But we do know why his government doesn’t like him: because he has told the truth. He has been a sharp critic of the Saudi regime and its ruthless treatment of the country’s citizens. He has been especially outspoken about Riyadh’s leading role in the war in Yemen, which has taken tens of thousands of lives and left millions at risk of starvation.
What is striking about all of these horrors is the shamelessness of the perpetrators. Evil has always existed (and always will), but rarely have the bigots, the thugs and the warmongers so brazenly advertised their sins. Vladimir Putin’s government positively rejoices over the murder of its opponents. A Brazilian presidential candidate and the Philippine president make jokes about rape.
I’m not sure I understand all the reasons for this outpouring of depraved behavior. Social media, which has unleashed many of our hitherto closeted demons, clearly serves as an accelerant. (Consider Facebook’s role in whipping up animosity against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.) A worldwide revolt against established elites — part slow-motion response to the 2008 financial crisis, part discontent with the inequities of globalization — has engendered a politics of rage that loosens the norms of good behavior. International networks of corruption are eroding democratic institutions. Western governments — above all, the Trump administration — show little inclination to call out human rights violations or to push back against the despots. And the strongmen appreciate the favor.
The United States, of course, is not immune. A few years ago, members of the so-called alt-right wouldn’t have dared to show their faces in public; now they’re empowered by an increasingly assertive culture of white-nationalist grievance, stoked by President Trump’s racist dog whistles. As I write this, misogynistic trolls — egged on by the president — are working overtime to destroy the life of Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who was brave enough to make a public statement about a trauma in her past. Meanwhile, children as young as 2, separated from their migrant or asylum-seeking parents by the U.S. government, are facing immigration courts on their own. And, of course, the president’s cheerleading for authoritarian regimes around the world — particularly North Korea, the vilest of them all — signals to the dictators that they can get away with anything as long as they participate in a helpful photo op.
Evil, contrary to popular belief, is never straightforward. Perhaps the hardest part about confronting evil is its complexity. There is a potential for evil in everyone, and even the most bloodthirsty dictators retain some semblance of humanity. This is precisely why we cannot rely solely on others — courts, political representatives, diplomats, international organizations — to fight back for us. Each of us must take a stand. Each of us must do what we can to act against the evil that we see around us — now more than ever.