top of page

I am "Remiss", not Evil

We expect evil to look terrifying; but most evil is terrifyingly bland.

One of the questions we deal with in the aftermath of the Holocaust is: who were the people who committed such terrible deeds? Were they all psychopaths? How can a man get up in the morning, have breakfast with his kids, listen to Beethoven on the gramophone and toddle off to supervise a gas chamber? Surely, we think, such a person must be a proper nutter, a psychopath who in the modern world would be a serial killer!

On the other hand, there were just too many people involved in the machinery of death to utilise this explanation. Can we believe that millions of Germans were all psychopaths? What about the clerks who ensured the trains ran on time or who ensured the Zyklon-B was delivered, ready to go. Were they also sick killers?

In the case of this second group of people, it seems to me that the answer is clear: evil (perhaps the most frightening kind) can look terrifyingly normal.

All of us live and operate within social and political systems - sometimes those systems are incredibly large and bureaucratic - there are all these forms to fill out, meetings to have, assessments to do. It's so big and "normal" that we can pretend not to notice that the systems can produce tremendous suffering. And this is comforting for us all, because there are so many moving parts that none of us feel responsible for the "blips", even if those "blips" are human beings.

Whilst we recognise the uniqueness of the Holocaust and whilst we never draw parallels, there are lessons we can perhaps glean from this blackest period of human history: there were too many people in the workings of the Holocaust who pretended that their actions were "normal" because they were part of a larger system.

We are all witness to an evil right now in South Africa which rests on a basis of "normalising evil". The minister of social development, Bathabile Dlamini, who has through incompetence (or perhaps worse), brought 17 million people to the brink of panic, desperation and possibly worse, has shrugged it all off by saying that she has been "remiss".

Let us be clear. This is not remiss, it's evil. It is the evil which the Bible spends the greatest efforts to combat: the evil of the invisible individual.

When Cain turns to G-d and says "Am I my brother's keeper?" it is nothing but an attempt to pretend that he as an individual is less than that, he's just a small cog in a big machine. When Adam cowardly responds to the accusation against him for eating from the fruit of the tree, by blaming his wife, Eve, he too is pretending not to be a fully accountable individual.

G-d's response is unequivocal - every individual is made in the image of G-d and therefore every individual is more than visible: an individual is G-dly, accountable and powerful.

G-d is saying loudly, "No, Cain! No Adam! You cannot escape your potential power and actual responsibility. You committed evil! Now own up."

Each of us can and must internalise this message. We need to look at our own lives and live up to our power and potential; and then, echoing the voice of righteousness, we can say,

"No, Bathabile! You are not remiss, you have created a terrifying evil. Now own up."

bottom of page