The nature of evil

Published: October 10, 2011
The writer is HEC distinguished national professor and presently Dean, School of Education, Beaconhouse National University

The writer is HEC distinguished national professor and presently Dean, School of Education, Beaconhouse National University [email protected]

Almost every other day, one hears of heinous crimes against humanity. In the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the Hutus systematically slaughtered the Tutsis by the thousands — the UN estimate is 800,000, but this number is certainly an underestimation. In 2004, ordinary American soldiers were seen humiliating and torturing Iraqi captives in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. And from earlier times, there is the ‘Rape of Nanking’— the rape and murder of a number of Chinese people by invading Japanese soldiers on the eve of World War II.

And it was in this war the sickening horror of the murder of Jews by the Nazi regime was carried out. The precision with which it was done is still evident for all who care to see the evidence in files, records, documents and the concentration camps themselves. And we in South Asia have seen such terrible killings, like in 1947, 1971 and during the long war in Sri Lanka. The question is whether evil is dispositional, genetic or is it something which circumstances and roles can create.

One answer to this question is by Philip Zimbardo whose book The Lucifer Effect (2007) is subtitled Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Zimbardo is a world-famous psychologist, a professor at the Stanford University and the creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment. This experiment was performed in August 1971 at the Stanford University. Zimbardo asked students to volunteer for the experiment for a reasonable pay. Later, some were allotted the roles of prisoners and others of guards. The guards were in a position of authority in the mock-prison but soon got so fully immersed in that role that they started abusing the prisoners. Some guards, however, were fair and some were even kind but none actually stopped the abuse. The prisoners, too, got immersed in their roles and, though some broke down, and some tried to rebel at times nobody asked for the experiment to be terminated even though they were ready to relinquish their pay. Zimbardo himself actually defended the system — as people in authority always do — as he was the superintendent of the prison. It finally took Christina Maslach (later Zimbardo’s wife) to point out that the prisoners had been dehumanised and abused. And, on the fifth day rather than the fourteenth, the experiment was terminated suddenly.

As a number of other experiments confirm that people tend to obey authority. They, therefore, acquiesce in evil because they cannot defy authority. Moreover, they want to be in the ‘in-group’ which again means that they will not oppose ‘group-thinking’. So, if your group tends to hate some other group, you will also do the same unthinkingly. John Steiner, a sociologist, interviewed hundreds of Nazi SS men. These were people who had actively participated in the murder of millions of Jews. He found that they were authoritarian. If they had not got a chance to take on such a diabolical role, they would have simply bullied wives and children. But Hitler provided them with a philosophy of hatred which made them do a lot of evil. However, according to Steiner, they were “sleepers”— people with traits, which would not become manifest unless the chance arose.

If a nation wants to avoid its citizens from becoming frenzied killers, it has to ensure that there are no unsupervised roles of power and dominance over others. Thus, the police and the intelligence agencies should not be allowed to hold people incommunicado. They must be supervised by the judiciary, human rights groups and the media. Similarly, women should not be at the mercy of men. There should be courts which should send armed men to arrest their husbands or brothers for abuse or even the threat of honour killing. In the schools, the teachers should be subjected to judicial intervention if a pupil is physically beaten. In short, whenever there is a potential prisoner-guard situation, there should be humane oversight.

As for aggression against other groups — other nations, religions, sects, linguistic and ethnic groups, socio-economic classes — these should be guarded against by not allowing their dehumanisation. Any propaganda which portrays the other group as sub-human distorts the very humanity of people, who are essentially like us. It is the basis of all genocides and hate murders. Thus, the American soldiers wiped out the Vietnamese, calling them “gooks”; the Hutus killed the Tutsis calling them “cockroaches” and “insects”; the Arabs were called “towel-heads” in the Iraq war; the Americans are called “infidel” and “crusaders” by the al Qaeda. This is to say, a whole group — and not just its decision-makers — are painted black and people rise up to kill the whole group by switching off their humanity. This would not happen they realise that the others are essentially like them too, and that ordinary people are not responsible for the decisions of their leaders.

In Pakistan the first thing we must do is to rewrite all textbooks which creates hatred for Indians. In India, too, all movies which portray Pakistanis in a bad light must be taken off the screen. We have dwelt on the killings in 1947 on both sides. We should now celebrate the heroes, again on both sides, who helped each other across the border, often by risking their lives. Such people also exist even if they are not many. Perhaps “sleepers” may be present among both the devils and the saints. But, above all, we must guard against creating the situation which makes such abominable evil possible. That is why people must create lasting peace so that war — the mother of all evils — does not start again.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 11th, 2011.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (25)

  • antony
    Oct 10, 2011 - 9:49PM

    “In india too all movies which portray Pakistanis in a bad light must be taken off the screen” After knowing 26/11 and kashmir meddling you want India to think Pakistan as dove ? .It is sheer absurdity .. India shows it can differentiate pakistan doves and kasabs by welcoming Atif in bollywood ,Rahet fateh ali khan ,nusrat etc ..But your initiative to reform pakistan is good .IF Pakistan handsover 26/11 perpetrators to India there would be a quantum jump in good will from india to pakistan. Just on another news Chief Justice is defending a Killer !!! .Way to go!!!Recommend

  • Homa
    Oct 10, 2011 - 10:59PM

    Good article. Controlling the unchecked flow of power and eliminating situations where evil can reign are important but are incomplete steps in themselves. Is evil an ingrained habit of the mind or a physiological impulse? It’s time that we collectively extended the study of violence to include the examination of the role of diet and food, of prevailing ideologies, and of other sociocultural factors affecting our consciousness and violent tendencies in the mind. That research is much needed.


  • Alam
    Oct 11, 2011 - 12:26AM

    The ever growing deficit of Critical thinking needs to be stopped. The suggestion that text books be written , should also be accompanied with : Just dont teach one version of history to kids….tell them to investigate and be curious, and make up their own minds.



  • MarkH
    Oct 11, 2011 - 2:38AM

    It’s a similar outlook to my own. Using a nature perspective, it’s similar to the food chain. If it’s higher, the lower more or less respect it out of fear of harm. If it’s lower, well, when was the last time popular opinion was against killing insects and what they think tastes good? In some countries like the west you’ll find many of the opinion that eating horses are wrong as they’re seen as “noble” animals but, when it comes down to it, under the terms of food they’re really not much different from the accepted ones. It’s the ranking “nobility” holds in the human mind. If humans are not kept at their logical ranking (one not above or below another), it turns into a law of nature scenario as they’re not actually taking what would be described as the essence of humanity into counsel.


  • N
    Oct 11, 2011 - 3:19AM

    We have learnt the art of spreading ‘blame’. Here we have conveniently dragged India into censoring its movies to show us in a good light. Why can’t we cleanse our history books and our sermons of all hate first and foremost? Let india do what India wants. And after exporting terror into their country for decades, we have denied it all. Now we expect them to cast us as normal people!


  • Cynical
    Oct 11, 2011 - 6:05AM


    I am all for the kind of research you suggest. Hope someone undertakes it at the earliest.


  • ukmuslim
    Oct 11, 2011 - 7:00AM

    a big difference.
    In Pakistan the first thing we must do is to rewrite all textbooks which creates hatred for Indians” in pakistan, the hatred is state created and supported.

    In india too all movies which portray Pakistanis in a bad light must be taken off the screen” indian govt do not make movies. its individual creation and it is not state sponsored.


  • Faction
    Oct 11, 2011 - 7:45AM

    There are groups who commit what rational, civilized people would call evil acts – intentionally murdering innocent people just for being different or thinking differently – who have formulated a belief system that encourages, celebrates, and labels as holy such atrocities. Without addressing the belief system, this evil will continue.


  • Afaq shaheen
    Oct 11, 2011 - 10:04AM

    Our behaviors are shaped by the super structures in which we live. India and Pakistan are the byproduct of communal differences under colonial rule, On that time these communal differences were institutionalized by then British government. The political movement which lead to the creation of India and Pakistan was result of collective effort against foreign occupation. Indian and Pakistani identity is based on opposing each other. Now spreading hate is essential part of strategic culture in both countries. Peace is simply not possible without any security arrangement on Kashmir which has been center of the conflict, Both the countries should try to resolute kashmir issue peacfully.


  • Afaq shaheen
    Oct 11, 2011 - 10:08AM

    A good article with poor suggestions. Peace could not be achieved without satisfying the interest of the stakeholders.


  • Oct 11, 2011 - 11:06AM

    evil is an aberration of the ego. An evil ego has a strong desire to dominate other egos. An evil person knows that terror is the most effective way to dominate other people because terror induces incapacitating fear. People who are stricken with fear cannot take effective action to defend themselves and while they are in that state, an evil person can do anything they want to do to them. This aberration of the ego can be termed “sick” because the perverted ego will inflict pain and suffering in order to experience the joy and thrill of being in total control. A healthy ego will not do that. A healthy ego is self-sufficient, peaceful, joyful in its natural state, and it has a desire to help and serve others. A healthy ego does not have a desire to dominate and it will not purposefully inflict pain and suffering. The concept of ego domination has been practiced throughout human history but it has not necessarily been fully understood by the practitioners. However, in the 20th century the Nazi’s not only fully understood the concept, but they were the scientists of evil. They perfected the science of terror for the first time in history. “Blitzkrieg” is the term for warfare that terrorizes without warning, completely surprising the victims and totally incapacitating them by knocking them out before they have a chance to understand what is happening to them. Torture on a mass level is the method for keeping a population in a state of terror. This is the sick psychology of evil.


  • Oct 11, 2011 - 4:33PM

    Sensible article. I am always stunned to read the contributions. There is always a beginning to complete a task. It is the beginning of the friendship between Pakistan and India. Hence, I shun the public opinion of both countries.

    Hope for Aman ki Asha to work!


  • Nadeem
    Oct 11, 2011 - 5:04PM

    The article just goes to show that the leadership of a country/society is what shapes the minds of the majority.


  • Amit
    Oct 11, 2011 - 5:43PM

    Humanism is the only way. However, it cannot be achieved on back of lies. All violent men and organizations should be exposed for their crimes. Terrorists should be called murderers. Supremacist ideology should be called out for what it is.


  • Homa
    Oct 11, 2011 - 9:14PM

    @Cynical: Thanks, Cynical. And it should encompass the way animals are treated as well. Violence against animals — in all its different sociocultural manifestations — has to stop for the propensity for violence to be rooted out from the human psyche. I think dietary non-violence will go a long way in transforming sick egos into healthy egos, and in creating healthy societies. Khawar Kazmi’s comment “A healthy ego is self-sufficient, peaceful, joyful in its natural state, and it has a desire to help and serve others. A healthy ego does not have a desire to dominate and it will not purposefully inflict pain and suffering” is bang on target. In my opinion, dietary non-violence is a necessary precondition for, as well as a necessary outcome of, the development of a healthy ego.


  • Homa
    Oct 11, 2011 - 9:16PM

    @khawar kazmi: Awesome analysis. Please also see my response to Cynical.


  • goggi
    Oct 11, 2011 - 11:39PM

    The Laws of Nature excel in Duality! Evil and Virtue are also two opposite sides of the same Coin which underlie these Eternal Laws of Nature. Defining these opposing evil or virtuous qualities of humans, is a matter of perspective. We take the example of Mumtaz Qadri, who is convicted of murder. The conservative Muslims are regarding his act as virtuous and demanding his freedom, whereas the liberals are regarding his action as an evil crime and want him to be hanged!
    According to my view, instead of taking the one or the other side, we should study the very “Essence of the Coin!” We shall soon ascertain, that both the sides are in fact talking from the same “KILLING” which is the essence of this coin…….we Kill you, because you Killed! If you readers think, that Killings should stop altogether and humanity prevails, then say NO to Human and Animal Killings. NO to Death Penalty and be a part of the World Peace Process!……….Your humble Shopkeeper, Germany


  • Yasir Ali
    Oct 12, 2011 - 12:09AM

    Glad to see a well written article on a topic which is so relevant to our time.
    The author has good intent and certainly wishes for the best of this nation.

    there’s always a big stinky ‘BUT’

    My stomach cringes when the author casually closes the article by suggesting what we must and must not do.

    Dear Sir, according to my 2 penny worth’s opinions, isn’t this attitude ingrained in the very nature of authoritarians. I don’t mean to relate all the heinous crimes that you have mentioned, to a secular class. What i wish to accomplish is the fact, that it’s time for us to discuss the right conditions for humans to evolve in our next step towards peace.
    Fear is the root of all evils, any sane man would know that. Fearing the loss of valuables (material or psychological) results in a natural tendency to defend and protect. In some cases going at lengths to do it. We see it today how this phenomena has corrupted our once religious rock stars into crazy fanatics ready to blow up in the face of material or psychological attack on their egos. Trying to protect either an ideology even if it’s only the face value of it.
    I hope i am making some sense with my broken grammar.
    We need to learn and understand that there is nothing to protect, and i really want you with me on this one. Nationalism, religion, society are all made up concepts in order to streamline and control the masses. Yes it has been working for most countries but i believe that citizens all over the world are waking up to it. Call it New Age Hippy melodrama, but people all over the world are realizing the spiritual value of not scavenging this planet and trying to own all it’s resources.
    I am proud to live in a time when i am realizing the falseness of concepts like religion and patriotism. Foolish ideologies constructed for a time when it was useful. Our evolutionary growth would not have been possible if it wasn’t for these very concepts. I am not saying that there won’t be countries in the near future. I am not saying people wouldn’t go to mosques, it’s just we have to come to terms with the falsity of such thoughts, give them their right place and let it be.
    Let me re assure, the above witnessed emotions were the direct result of this author’s skill to entice the very core of my self. I praise you sir and wish to see more good work from you. I really liked your suggestions in the fifth para. A fresh perspective on possible implementation strategies :)
    ‘Have no Fear, YOU are here!’


  • Oct 12, 2011 - 12:41AM

    In princeple what you say is right,In India Gulam Ali is loved,I have talked to him,he respect and love India,he was distrought, pain heched on his face,he had to be consoled in Jasjit Singhji funeral.There are scores of artist who are living in India without any problem.We are enriched by these good people,but also there are very many bigots too,but generally there are more sane people over there.The culture is such,they get upset or riled up when there is mahem like what happened in Mumbai.But please Anthony,we do not want the chief of LeT,he was in Indian prison,remember 1999 high jacking,he was let go along with the killer of Daniel Pearl,you guys have poor memory or talk through you know what?What has India done with Kasab and Afjul Guru?,what we would have done with david Gillani who is serving time in USa without parole,pl do not ask for Saheed once again.We do not want him or Dawood,or that other character Mirchi,who was captured in West,we wouldn’t know what to do with them,other than bending over backword to mollify poor minority in India by more vote bank appeasement.Look at the C.M. Omar in KashmirRecommend

  • Oct 12, 2011 - 1:04AM

    It is people like you which gives me hope all is not lost in Pakistan,Why you forgot the first 3 letters P A K .??Is hating Hindus and other Kafirs the ultimate Redemption Of Pakistan or Islam?This beautiful earth is 8000 miles dia,and 25000 in cercumfrance,there is room for all of us,I have lived in USA for 50 years in position of supervising all sort of men,have been given love and respect which I never found in India,neither for me or my poor dad,as MLK has repeated we must strive for a society where our color,caste or gender should not matter but only our merit,character and our humanity,america is not perfect we are full of wart and imperfection,but we are a union in progress,I’m confident,we will get there sooner than any other people in history in 200 years,we have travelled a great distance,do not doubt us,that is why Lincoln,Enstein and Steve jobs are sucessful inspite of their poverty.Obama,CLITON were dirt poor,they wound being President,we love our country and we do not hesitate to dissent from our leader and replace them when they become too big for their breeches or arrogent,while India/Pakistan has no answer for Nehru/Gandhi/Bhutto,go figure!.But people like you give me hope for you can think straight,that is first step.


  • Oct 12, 2011 - 1:18AM

    Another thinking Gentleman,Bollywood makes those movie,as they need in every movie several villians,one hero and one heroine,and Pakistani come handy,but it is not state sponsored.But let me assure you,India is not whole lot better than you,it is 22% people got money rest are all dirt poor.Rest is just as good or worse,This is 100% Kosher news.But yet I’m happy for small mercy.good day


  • Oct 12, 2011 - 2:26AM

    Mutual admiration society,feels good,we should be good,kind,tell no lies,permit no terrorism,what else,supermist ideolgy should be called out,what else,We can not even bring ourself to call OBL terrorist,it is if and buts,India’s congress party chief calls him OSAMAJI’ like he addressing the Mahatmaji?WHO WILL BELL THE CAT,it all hunkey-dori,peaches and cream,yet we have created mess all around,who did it?,people from Mars?or people who had no urge to dominate?Why are we so gullible?


  • Oct 12, 2011 - 2:35AM

    Googi,good one,You probably did not realise that you just accidently scratch the surface of the philosophy of famous ADI SANKARA and the philosophy of duelism.There is ADWITA ,and DWETA philosophy,I warn you it is very deep and require a teacher to understand,pupil are warned not to venture study of it without teacher.If you or any one ever undertakes to study ,all darkness will vanish,but why go there, you have Kuran and ISLAM,stay with it,it is great.


  • Oct 12, 2011 - 7:23PM

    @Yasir Ali:
    I’m with you on points you have raised,fear,religion and need to avoid mass chaos and mob violence and mob rule.There comes in a point in a individual,and society as a whole to evolve into enlightened entity,go beyond dogamas,ideology and move towards greatest good for greatest numbers.There is limited harm if some follow religion to in its strict words literally,it is prevalent in advance society such as Bible belt in USA,but they are not main stream,they influnce politics on margin,and that is where it must stop,but in theocratic state,it does not stop and it forces itself on life of everybody,if this not kept at bay,all chaos and hell will break lose.Freedom and free speech as we understand will cease to exist.All society and progressive nations have come to understand and have curbed tish tendency of masses and regid ideas ,and put a break on their intolerance,with the result these nations have control over their destiny and advancement,those who , who are unable to do,and are stuck in old thought are stuck in quick sand are sinking.Fear of unknown is big part of it,getting rid of fear in total,and in masses is not just making a statement and wave a magic wand and presto,society is reformed,it does not work that way.It is long evolutionary process some societies are reluctent to that path,that is where Gordiang knot exist,and there are more 3rd world nations in Africa,Asia and in middle East we care to count,the path to modernity and enlightenment is waved with proverbial rocks and thorns,but one must walk on them to Progress,there is no other way.You are ,individually,well on its way,but we must strive to drag our society screaming and dragging their feet.That is where a smart citizanary shows its ability.I write mainly to make justice desirable,ease pain and suffering,make love possible and evil understandable.


  • Oct 12, 2011 - 7:54PM

    @Afaq shaheen:
    It is not not accurate to blame the British colonial powers for all subcontinent hatred and division,it will be disgenuious,and a a cop out avoiding collective responsibility,not much progress made due to this flawed theory.I,if had any say,will put in cold storage and back burner for a while about all talk of Kashmir,I will explain why,like Arab-Israeli,conflict,this also charged issue,the parties are stuck in irrecouncilible hard line,no govt in India,however good,strong and unified can make radical change in policy,that is undeniable political fact and reality,to much blood,hate and distrust,PERIOD.So should we fold our tent and go home?,NO,we have to build ecnomic ties like Sino/USA,Indo/Sino and Us/Canada,like USA/Euro.where trade and business guide the domestic policy,and then when the ties are strong, and good will on both side,and there is little chance for flame thrower any room for mischief and monkey wrench are out of circulation,untill then pontifecating and moral and high sounding sermons will get us no where,this reality where both Arabs and We missed boarding the bus 64 years ago,but it is not yet late,but task is getting harder day by day,no one seem to get this simple fact in consideration,this my opinion.Every other thing has failed and doomed for failure and ship wreck.


More in Opinion