As I was “jogging” at the YMCA today I watched a CNN report about a Canadian adjunct professor being blamed for the radicalization of some students that seem to have traveled to Syria to join the “Islamic State.” Apparently he taught classes about Islamaphobia and injustice. I do not know much about his particular story. But I do know that, in general, teaching about injustice does not create a capacity for evil (or what we seem to be calling “radicalization”).
There is one thing that we should understand about humanity, because it has been shown and explained to us over and over again, demonstrated with depressing regularity: evil is ordinary. Every good villain has a compelling backstory. Maleficent and Elphaba were good girls once upon a time.
Hannah Arendt gave to us the famous phrase: the banality of evil.
Milgram showed us that regular people, given permission and an order, will hurt - even kill – other people. They will be drawn into complicity with, even active participation, in evil. History is replete with normal people engaging in crimes against humanity, in genocide, in causing pain and suffering. Given permission and a plausible story of injustice, of Nationalism, of deserved vengeance, of divine right - people can be draw into movements and actions and systematic expressions of evil causing pain and suffering of others. Regular people can enslave other people. Regular people can hand their neighbors over to genocide. Not only in the distant past, but also in the recent past and, yes, in the here and now. Regular kids from the USA and Britain and France and anywhere can leave home to join the “Islamic State.”
It is insincere to call the “Islamic State” and the evils they are willing to commit medieval. How many horrors have been committed in the modern age fueled by groups and nations and individuals ready to commit atrocities? But not everyone is complicit; not everyone participates. What is it that those who have protected the vulnerable from genocide, that assisted the escape of slaves, the kids who refused to push the button – what is it that they had? Whatever they had is the solution to the evil, and the cure that we need. The answer isn’t simply religion. Consider the two Catholic nuns convicted in Belgium of directly assisting in the murder of thousands of Rwandans. The answer isn’t simply education or economic means. Consider so-called “Jihadi John” with his middle-class childhood and University degree. Even kids from middle class America, from loving homes, can be drawn into a movement of atrocities.
But the answer to tearing down systems that create an atrocity-pull (not only the phenomenon of the “Islamic State” but the future yet-unknown groups acting for other sorts of causes) will be some combination of ideas, education and economic possibility all rooted in liberal freedoms, justice and compassion. Not ideas alone, but systems of justice liberty and compassion that protect individuals.
Because the capacity to be drawn into evil when handed a plausible reason, and permission, appears to be an endemic part of humanity, what we really need is to work proactively to tear down the stories that act as the fuel, and that give vulnerable people a sense of permission to be drawn into the atrocity-pull of hate or fear or vengeance or perceived righteousness. Teaching about injustice does not cause radicalization. Teaching about, and creating systems of, justice is one part of the solution to the ordinary problem of evil.