You have to be human to know evil. My cat, my elephant, and my peacock know nothing of the subject.
There is your garden variety human evil, the awful things people do, the things cops see every day, the daily commerce of jealousy, revenge, hatred and harm.
And then there is a special kind of human evil, a highly distilled form of evil, the blackest, blindest and most banally stupid form of evil in the entire cosmos — and that is institutional human evil.
It is human beings joining larger social organizations and then subsuming their personal will into the greater good of the organization. It is individual people doing morally repugnant things because “this thing of ours” has to survive. Grow. Succeed. Win. Profit.
It’s individual people doing what they consider to be necessary evil. Those penniless widows must be evicted or our bottom line will suffer. Those children cannot remain on Medicare or taxes will remain high. Those windfall oil profits cannot be used to pay some old person’s heating bill or civilization will collapse, and the sky will fall, too.
Every person who does something they find repugnant but necessary for the good of “this thing of ours” will predictably claim they they have no personal say in the matter. No choice. The organization they serve needs them to do this thing. It isn’t their idea or choice. Therefore even if it is evil in its effect, it’s just business, never personal.
Thus, no person is ever responsible for institutional evil, from the CEO to the clerk, from the general to the grunt. Indeed, we describe the deputies dragging penniless widows out of their shacks and hovels as good, loyal, upright family men. Stout Christian fellows all.
So were the stout Christian fellows handling Zyklon-B a few decades back. Exemplary soldiers and citizens of the Reich every one, fulfilling their duties with diligence and skill. They did not murder anyone; they merely assisted a necessary process. They merely followed orders.
Human institutions flail and fight one another. This only increases the stupid. This only increases the evil. The Serbs were right to rape and shoot Bosnians. The Bosnians were right to rape and shoot Serbs. The Iraqis are right to blow up Americans. The Americans are right to invade other countries. All because their institutions are right. Their institutions said so, and that’s good enough for the individuals taking part in them.
The walking talking point Ken Mehlman, or any of the other bobbleheads and front men for the GOP, exhibits this form of evil. If Ken were stranded alone on a desert island, he would not spin fabulous political lies all day long. That’s not him. Not his choice of how to spend his day. Without his institution to defend, he would probably turn out to be kind to other creatures, and pass his time weaving lovely baskets.
If the troops in Baghdad were not in the institutionalized murder machine they are in, they would not spend their afternoons shooting total strangers for strategic reasons they don’t pretend to understand. They’d play football and wash their cars and play with their kids. They’d build things, not burn them down and walk away.
It is both the highest form of human achievement to organize ourselves into vast cooperative endeavors like institutions, companies, nations, armies, religions — and our very worst feature as a species. Perhaps the trait that will be our end.
It takes some organization to do the truly stupid things. It takes immense, ossified, institutionalized stupidity to produce mindlessly, endlessly appalling evil. Individuals are scarcely capable of conceiving the evils that a well organized institution can accomplish.
The moral struggle that takes place within each and every soul is not merely written larger in huge human institutions. No. It is banned, ignored and papered over. Individual thought, choice and will is not good for an organization, and is subsumed into institutional goals. People must at some point become parts of the organization for the organization to function. Once the talking and planning is done, they must all become stupid parts that will reliably carry out their assigned role on time and in detail. Parts, by definition, are not human beings.
Perhaps our human institutions need something like Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics — as soon as the first widow is being dragged, as soon as the first innocent family is “lit up” at an Iraqi checkpoint, as soon as we deny food, water and safety to our own citizens, the institution delivering this actual harm should be internally wired to stop in its tracks. Be dissolved on the spot. Start over. DING! This isn’t working, folks, forget about it.
But we are not robots. If we choose to be stupid parts in an institution well, that is our choice. If we think that doing so will not result in stupidity and evil at some point, we are morons.
Serving only the good of our company, our nation, or whatever we call “this thing of ours,” is patently stupid, immoral and prone to evil, since it removes us from our direct choice and responsibility to the moment — the very things that we are here on Earth to express and experience.
Serving “this thing of ours” even as it delivers real harm to other human beings is institutional human evil. The special kind. The gold label hard stuff. Well distilled and aged. Utterly black, blind and cold-blooded evil.
The kind you need to torture total strangers as your nine-to-five.
The kind you need to introduce kids and mothers to Willy Pete and call it a solid tactical solution.
The kind of stupid evil you get a medal for.