How Evil Happens

Human beings are capable of committing unspeakable atrocities. That includes me and you. We have the capacity to be Hitler, to be Mao, to be Stalin, to be Pol Pot. We have the capacity to be the Columbine shooters, Adam Lanza, the Unabomber. Not only do we have the capacity to kill for a purpose, but we have the capacity to kill for the sole purpose of killing and like it.

A scene in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls illustrates this well. The novel takes place during the Spanish Civil War. During the scene, one of the characters tells the story of the day of the revolution in her village. They started by executing the Civil Guards. It was brutal. Her husband, Pablo, took a handgun from one of them and had the guards explain how it worked. He then shot each of them in the back of the head, one after the other.

Afterwards, they turned to the remaining “fascists” (all who opposed the revolution were referred to in this way). Instead of shooting them, the revolutionaries forced them to walk a gauntlet of wooden flails and pitchforks, one by one, before throwing them off of a cliff. The guards were killed in private, but the deaths of these men would be a public spectacle in which the whole community participated.

The people were not ready for what they were about to do.

If you have not seen the day of revolution in a small town where all know all in the town and always have known all, you have seen nothing. And on this day most of the men in the double line across the plaza [as part of the gauntlet] wore the clothes in which they worked in the fields, having come into town hurriedly, but some, not knowing how one should dress for the first day of a movement, wore their clothes for Sundays or holidays, and these, seeing that the others, including those who had attacked the barracks, wore their oldest clothes, were ashamed of being wrongly dressed. But they did not like to take off their jackets for fear of losing them, or that they might be stolen by the worthless ones, and so they stood, sweating in the sun and waiting for it to commence.

The naiveté! Putting on your Sunday best to prepare for the ritual slaughter of neighbors you have known for your entire life! As if it were an occasion for celebration. They did not know what they were doing. Indeed, they thought they were doing something else entirely. They thought they were liberating themselves from their oppressors, but in truth, each man unleashed a bloodthirsty demon within his own soul and was promptly made a slave to a far more brutal master than before.

It happened slowly, at first. When the first of the fascists came out, the men who composed the gauntlet hesitated. They weren’t accustomed to senseless violence; they did not yet have a taste for it. But after sending four men through the gauntlet, they were beginning to get into a rhythm. Evil was taking hold of them.

I was wondering why no one else had come out and just then who should come out but Don Guillermo Martín from whose store the flails, the herdsman’s clubs, and the wooden pitchforks had been taken. Don Guillermo was a fascist but otherwise there was nothing against him.

It is true he paid little to those who made the flails but he charged little for them too and if one did not wish to buy flails from Don Guillermo, it was possible to make them for nothing more than the cost of the wood and the leather. He had a rude way of speaking and he was undoubtedly a fascist and a member of their club and sat at noon and at evening in the cane chairs of their club to read El Debate, to have his shoes shined, and to drink vermouth and seltzer and eat roasted almonds, dried shrimps, and anchovies. But one does not kill for that, and I am sure if it had not been for the insults of Don Ricardo Montalvo and the lamentable spectacle of Don Faustino, and the drinking consequent on the emotion of them and the others, some one would have shouted, “That Don Guillermo should go in peace. We have his flails, Let him go.”

But instead of letting him go, they killed him. Not only that, they taunted him while doing so.

This barbaric sequence of events culminates in the storming of the room where the rest of the fascists are being kept. They were praying with a priest, confessing their sins one last time, being sent out one by one to walk the gauntlet and fall to their deaths. But they were delaying. The delay was unacceptable. The people pressed up against the room, calling for the blood of the fascists to be shed. But the door was locked. They couldn’t get in until Pablo unlocked the door, which he eventually did.

And in that moment, looking through the bars, I saw the hall full of men flailing away with clubs and striking with flails, and poking and striking and pushing and heaving against people with the white wooden pitchforks that now were red and with their tines broken, and this was going on all over the room while Pablo sat in the big chair with his shotgun on his knees, watching, and they were shouting and clubbing and stabbing and men were screaming as horses scream in a fire. And I saw the priest with his skirts tucked up scrambling over a bench and those after him were chopping at him with sickles and the reaping hooks and then some one had hold of his robe and there was another scream and another scream and I saw two men chopping into his back with sickles while a third man held the skirt of his robe and the priest’s arms were up and he was clinging to the back of a chair….

For what purpose? What began as a violent political upheaval ended as a gratuitous massacre. Did so much blood need to be shed for these people to establish the kind of state that they wanted? But perhaps what they were after was not so much political change as revenge. Revenge on the former ruling class merely for being the ruling class. They wanted an occasion to remove all restraints from their hatred, to let it possess them and consume them.

We all have this hatred in us. And it is always seeking an opportunity to take control, to exert its will upon the world, to make human existence a living hell. If we do not recognize that there is a twisted part of us that desires evil for the sake of evil, then we risk being like the farmers who at first did not want to kill, but then discovered that killing was all they wanted. Know thyself. Know thy enemy.

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