Saturday, December 19, 2009

So are we evil? Or just...human?

By Stephen Lewis

I believe that all people are capable of good, but they don’t always show it.

Recently I visited a friend for a weekend at his fraternity house at the University of Michigan, and my backpack was stolen. I later found it emptied on an upstairs balcony. My clothes were scattered, and my iPod was missing. I never found it nor did I find my culprit’s identity.

The students in Ann Arbor, like most University communities, come from affluent families, not unlike my own Jewish family. Their rooms are filled with electronics and expensive gadgets so I suspect most of them already own an iPod. Mine wasn’t taken because of desperation or need – probably more for the thrill (of course it could have been someone off campus who needed it).

Whoever it was, he --or she-- made me pretty angry. I felt helpless, violated and betrayed. And then I got to wondering about this individual who had ripped me off.

I like to think that I am a good person, but I am not perfect by any stretch. In the fourth grade, I hid another student’s drumsticks in the bushes hoping I wouldn’t have to sit next to him in band class anymore. A pair of detentions validated that I had done something wrong. I was in the fourth grade. The thief listening to my Beirut tracks is in college. Of course he knew what he was doing was wrong, but apparently he never had a Principal Jacobs to slap him on the wrist when he deserved it. Is this person also inherently good?

Even Bernie Madoff did some good. After all, he managed The Madoff Family Foundation, which supported many educational facilities, cultural programs, and health research funds – although I imagine many of those closed down without his financing.

Madoff's critics abound. One of them, the magazine City File: New York, labeled Madoff the “new face of evil.”

But is he?

Evil is the intrinsic absence of good; it is something absolutely immoral, and willfully malevolent. To me, the faces of evil through history are tyrants. They include Ivan the Terrible, Hirohito, Leopold II, Pol Pot, Stalin, and Hitler. I understand this magazine is fighting for readers in an industry hanging by its last thread, but they are wrong to call Madoff evil – Kim Jong Il, Robert Mugabe, and Omar Al-Bashir still walk freely on this Earth. They are in a category, clearly separate from Bernie Madoff.

Madoff shows me that people are not just capable of doing good, but also capable of doing wrong. I am capable of doing wrong as well. I have from time to time imagined what would happen if I released a box of hornets into my brother’s bedroom after a fight, but I’m glad I’ve never resorted to such measures

I wonder if my offender is listening to my iPod right now, enjoying the smooth rhythms of Thievery Corporation or the soothing beats of Bedouin Soundclash. While I may have demonized him when I discovered my backpack minus my stuff, I highly doubt that this person is evil. Maybe all he needs is some quality music to guide his intentions.

Writer Stephen Lewis is from Los Angeles. He is a sophomore at Georgetown University.

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