On Evil

by Theodore Dalrymple (Jan. 2007)


I have long been preoccupied by the problem of evil. Not being a philosopher, I have no satisfactory explanation of evil to offer, nor even, indeed, a satisfactory definition of it. For me, evil is rather like poetry was for Doctor Johnson: easier to say what it isn’t than what it is. All I know for certain is that there’s a lot of it about – evil, I mean, not poetry.

Why? Is the heart of man irredeemably evil, or at any rate inclined to evil? What are the conditions in which evil may flourish?


My medical practice, admittedly of a peculiar kind, in a slum and in a prison, convinced me of the prevalence of evil. I was surprised. I had spent a number of years in countries wracked by civil wars and thereby deprived of even minimal social order, precisely the conditions in which one might expect evil to be widely committed, if only because in such situations the worst come to the fore. But nothing prepared me for the sheer malignity, the joy in doing wrong, of so many of my compatriots, when finally I returned home. Every day in my office I would hear of men who tortured women – torture is not too strong a word – or commit the basest acts of intimidation, oppression and violence, with every appearance of satisfaction and enjoyment. I would once have taken the opening sentence of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments for a truism:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there is evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.


But now I no longer think it is even a truth, let alone a truism. I would be more inclined to write:

How good soever man may be supposed, there is evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the suffering of others… etc., etc.


I have seen so much, both at home and abroad, that I am not easily taken aback. When you have heard of baby-sitters who impale babies on railings in order to quieten them during a televised football match, or of men who suspend their girlfriends by their ankles from the fifteenth floor balcony, and this kind of thing daily for many years, you develop a kind of emotional carapace. One almost begins to take a pride in one’s own unsociability, which one takes to be a kind of sophistication. It is a form of spiritual pride, I suppose. Still, I nevertheless read a book that shocked me. It was about the Rwandan genocide, called A Time for Machetes, by a French journalist called Jean Hatzfeld. He interviewed several men who had taken part in the genocide, probably the most murderous in human history, at least in terms of numbers of deaths per day while it lasted, and were now imprisoned. One of them was under sentence of death.


As it happens, I had been to Rwanda only a handful of years before the genocide. I was travelling across Africa by public transport, so that I could see African life from below, as it were. I passed through several extraordinary countries, for example Equatorial Guinea, where the first (democratically elected) president after independence from Spain had been overthrown and executed by his nephew. Francisco Macias Nguema was one of the great unsung political monsters of the Twentieth Century, the century par excellence of political monsters. He kept the national treasury under his bed, had all people who wore eyeglasses executed on the grounds that they were dangerous intellectuals, introduced forced unpaid labour and killed or drove into exile a third of the population. His nephew who overthrew him, who until then had been his accomplice, was somewhat of an improvement, though still a dictator (and to this day is President): whenever he left the capital, the power supply was switched off as no longer being necessary.


I am ashamed now of the superficiality of my understanding of Rwanda of those days. I knew, of course, that Burundi (through which I had also just travelled) and Rwanda were mirror images of one another: that in Burundi it was the Tutsi minority that massacred the Hutu people, whereas in Rwanda it was the other way round, and that it was rather difficult to decide who had started this most vicious of vicious circles. But by comparison with many African countries, Rwanda seemed a well-run state, comparatively uncorrupt, its people industrious to a fault, and far from wretchedly poor, despite being one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, if not the world, with an astonishingly high natality. I knew, of course, that it was a dictatorship, the dictator being Major-General Juvenal Habyarimana, and that every Rwandan, ex officio as it were, was a member of the one party of the one-party state, the Mouvement national revolutionnaire pour le developpement (MNRD), from birth. But at the time, I was not very optimistic that multi-party politics, of the kind that the dictator was forced to introduce in 1991, would necessarily represent an improvement. In a way, I was right: the most efficient slaughter in human history took place three years later.


In that slaughter, in the space of three months, neighbours killed without compunction those with whom they had been friendly all their lives, only because they were of the different, and reputedly opposing, ethnic designation. They used no high-tech means, only clubs and machetes. Women and children were not spared; husbands of mixed marriages killed wives, and vice versa. The participation of the general population in the slaughter was its most remarkable feature: usually in mass murder, it is the state that does the killing, or rather the state’s agents, since the state is an abstraction without an existence independent of those who work for it. Hatzfeld, the African correspondent of the French left-wing newspaper, Liberation, went to interview some of the perpetrators a few years after the genocide. They were friends who took part in the murder (if that is not too slight a word for it) of 50,000 of the 59,000 Tutsis who lived in their commune.


Oddly enough, being in prison gave them the ability to talk about what they had done, if not honestly, at least with some degree of freedom. I do not know to what degree Hatzfeld, who interviewed them individually and at length, edited the transcript of his interviews, and of course we have no way of knowing how representative his witnesses are: but their testimony is perhaps the most startling ever committed to paper.


There is no real remorse for what they did, only regret that it landed them in their current predicament. They feel more sorry for themselves than for their victims, or the survivors. They are not even altogether unhappy in prison, and look forward to resuming their lives where they left off (before the genocide) as if nothing too much had really happened – or should I say been done by them? They hoped for, and expected, forgiveness on the part of the survivors, amongst whom they would have to return to live, because resentment and bitterness are useless emotions and because they (the perpetrators) had all been gripped by a collective madness. This, of course, absolved them in large part from personal responsibility.


For three months, the men would get up, have a hearty breakfast, gather together, and then go on hunting expeditions of their former neighbours, who had fled to the nearby marshes. They would hack anyone they found to death; and then, when the whistle blew in the evening for them to stop their ‘work’ (they regarded it as such), they returned home, had a quick wash, had dinner and socialised in a jolly way over a few beers. Their wives would be – for the most part, though not universally – content, because Tutsi property was thoroughly looted, and distributed according to the individual efficiency and ruthlessness of the killers. One of the most haunting things in this book, if it is possible to pick anything out in particular, is that many of the victims did not so much as cry out when caught by the murderous genocidaires: they died in complete silence, as if speech and the human voice were now completely worthless, redundant, beside the point. I have often wondered why the people went into the gas chambers silently, without fighting back, but I suppose that when you witness absolute human evil committed by the people with whom you once lived, and who, at least metaphysically, are just like you, you see no point in the struggle for existence. Non-existence, perhaps, seems preferable to existence.


The murderers were pleased with their work, they thought of all the corrugated iron roofing, cattle and so forth that they were ‘earning’ by it. They had never been so prosperous as during this period of slaughter and looting. Unaccustomed to eating meat very often (the Tutsi were pastoralists, the Hutu cultivators), they gorged themselves upon it, like hyenas finding an abandoned kill in the bush. Very few were their pauses for thought.


Let us not console ourselves with the thought that these were unsophisticated Africans, without the mental capacity to know better: in short, mere savages. Again, I do not know how much Hatzfeld has edited their words, but his perpetrator interlocutors seem to me more articulate than most of the people with whom I have had to deal in Britain as patients over the last decade and a half. Indeed, their language occasionally becomes poetic: though poetic language in this circumstance is mere euphemism.


Besides, the few comments of the survivors, mostly women, that Hatzfeld inserts into the text, are of considerable moral and intellectual sophistication, and certainly not those of unreflecting primitives with few powers of cerebration. Here is Edith, a Tutsi schoolteacher, on the question of forgiveness:

‘I know that all the Hutus who killed so calmly cannot be sincere when they beg pardon, even of the Lord. [Many now pray fervently: the Rwandans were fervently religious long before the genocide.] But me, I am ready to forgive. It is not a denial of the harm they did, not a betrayal of the Tutsis, not an easy way out. It is so that I will not suffer my whole life asking myself why they tried to cut me. [Cut is the euphemism used by victim and perpetrator alike for ‘kill,’ since most of the death was dealt with a machete.] I do not want to live in remorse and fear from being Tutsi. Of I do not forgive them, it is I alone who suffers and frets and cannot sleep… I yearn for peace in my body. I really must find tranquillity. I have to sweep fear far away from me, even if I do not believe their soothing words.’


Francine, a Tutsi farm woman and shopkeeper, on the other hand, says this:

‘Sometimes, when I sit alone in a chair on my veranda, I imagine this possibility: one far-off day, a local man comes slowly up to me and says, ‘Bonjour, Francine, I have come tospeak to you. So, I am the one who cut your mama and your little sisters. I want to ask your forgiveness.’ Well, to that person I cannot reply anything good. A man may ask for forgiveness if he has one Primus [beer] too many and then beats his wife. But if he has worked at killing for a whole month, even on Sundays, whatever can he hope to be forgiven for? We must simply go back to living, since life has so decided… We shall return to drawing water together, to exchanging neighbourly words, to selling grain to one another. In twenty years, fifty years, there will perhaps be boys and girls who will learn about the genocide in books. For us, though, it is impossible to forgive.’


No, it is impossible to console ourselves with the thought that the Rwandans are so different from us that they and their experiences have nothing to say to us. Edith and Francine are, indeed, more dignified, more articulate, more intelligently reflective, than most of the victims of small-scale evil in an English slum whom I have met.


This book penetrates deeper into the heart of evil than any other I have ever read. The author makes no claims for his work: he is still mystified by it himself. But if you want to know what depths man can sink to – an important thing to know, when your argument is that things are so bad that they cannot get any worse, so prudence is unnecessary – read this book. At the very least, it will put your worries into perspective.


A TIME FOR MACHETES, Jean Hatzfeld, Farrar, Straus, Giroux


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