... Death was something I was just starting to think about. We had been discussing whether or not it could ever be right to kill or even to want someone dead. “Ma,” I asked, “is there anyone in the world you wish would die?”
She was silent for many seconds. “Yes,” she said. “Joseph Stalin.” Some more seconds of silence. “And Joseph McCarthy.”
I’m not sure why I remember this so clearly, out of so many thousands of childhood conversations. But I am sure that it was an important moment in my political education. The lesson, by the way, was not that McCarthy was “just as bad” as Stalin. My mother was not indoctrinating me in “moral equivalence.” Even as a little kid I knew the difference between a murderous, all-powerful dictator and a vicious, amoral demagogue constrained by the institutions of a free country. The lesson, I think, was that the evil of the one did not diminish or excuse the evil of the other. Wherever you are, Ma: thanks.
Hendrik Herzberg , The New Yorker
... And so it is, also, with good, I think to myself; the good of the one does not diminish either.
The good of one within ... and the evil.
There was someone in my life, long ago, who acted with evil intent against me. I wanted that person dead. The most I ever did to toss off the one who had harmed me was to daydream ... The one who tarred me died a thousand gory deaths, but never by my hand. Plane and car crashes did my evil one in.
... And now? My evil one has receded into history, as all dictators do. My evil one is dead. What remains are scars; many scars ... and quietude. I call this person "my evil one" in retrospect only -- my "all-powerful dictator" and I came to amends of a sort, and went on with our lives ...
Only those who lived intimately with Josef Stalin and Joe McCarthy could know if there was any good in them ... if ever they gazed into another's eyes with mercy; laid a gentle hand on a fevered face; cooed a cherished name into the cup of another's ear. Did love exist and operate within these men? Could it?
Evil behaviour is always a possibility ... but evil being ... this is made, never born. It seems to be that some people cultivate evil like others are lured by good. Most of us swing mildly back and forth in the mid-zone between the poles; most of us are moral Everymen. We've done good; we've done bad. Have we done evil?
What is evil? ... I understand it as conscious intent to harm. When I was eleven, I kicked my older brother in the head. He was in the front seat of our father's car, I was in the back; we were waiting for Dad to drive us to school. Zoomer (as I'll call my bro) and I were fighting. He'd beaten me but good many times before; I had no defence but to curl up and take it. This time, though ... my left leg shot away from its hip, through the opening between the two front seats, and my hard-soled oxford crashed into the side of my brother's skull.
I remember the feral desperation I felt that morning -- trapped yet again in a confined space with a bigger kid, a boy who I was stuck living with every day of my life, this boy whose rage seemed mostly aimed at me, the next one down the line. My own rage found and took advantage of an opening when my leg shot out -- I was in a state of primal panic, having been barely awake moments before, slouched against the car door.
It was the usual sibling thing in a family of perpetually angry people; the bigger kid beats on the smaller kid ... until the smaller kid has had enough.
I hurt my brother that day. The retort of heel against head froze our fight; Zoomer roared in pain, threw himself out of the car, and into the house. A moment later, my mother pounded outside. She was on fire.
... I wonder if dictators are born on mornings like this. A family's still digesting breakfast if they've eaten at all; everyone's grabbing for stuff they can't find; coffee gets spilled; tempers are raw; everyone's late, late, late! Sooner or later: KABOOM. A family's become a mob in miniature. You know what mob mentality does to a person ... You turn feral.
Long story short: My mother grabbed one of my arms, twisted me around and delivered a kick to my coccyx that left me in piercing pain for a week. I never kicked my brother again; my mother never kicked me again; who knows what blows may have been delivered out of my sight. Zoomer continued to beat the crap out of me with his fists and insults until about three years later, when I had my first sort-of boyfriend, for all of two weeks ... and Zoomer suddenly became my guardian. (What is it with brothers?!)
No one in my family became a Stalin or a McCarthy ... at least in a public manner. We've all hurt one another, and been hurt in our turn. It's been said that a family is "a dictatorship run by its sickest member," and I tend to agree. I suppose the same can be said of every other group we humans band into and identify with.
There's still that nagging question, though ... Did I do evil to my brother by kicking him in the head? Yes, and ... any creature cornered and threatened will fight for its life until it can't any more. That was me, in the car. I'd had enough and I wanted him down. In the lull between his screaming stumble into the house and our mother's furious emergence, I felt something new and raw ... and enticing.
I may have gone on to injuring others for habit or glee, had my mother not left her boot print on my backside. What you do unto others ...
I remember the thrill of having beaten down an opponent who'd always had the upper hand. I, for once, had won. I felt explosively strong, and proud ... until my mother delivered a one-time kick that hurled me to the ground. As the breath was blown out of my lungs (for I landed on patio stones), I heard a voice deep inside that said Never again.
Am I an evil person for having kicked Zoomer in the head? No. If I'd gone on to kick people in the head for fun or profit, we'd be having a very different conversation. We'd be on another course entirely if I kicked people in the head because I couldn't help doing so. (Brain and CNS injuries are so multifaceted ...)
Mr. Herzberg's piece has opened up so many questions ... conundrums. There are people living right now without whose presence -- as it's shown itself thus far -- we'd all be better off. I won't name any names; I don't need to. We all have such names in our head. I don't wish these people dead -- I want them to stop what they're doing.
Evil is in the choice and the act.