[June 08, 2014] In the 1980s, my friends and I had long conversations about Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein and his role in the Iran-Iraq War. The debate about whether he was an evil dictator or a grandfatherly figure protecting his country raged off and on; even after he used chemical weapons to attack Kurdish civilians in 1988. Yet, the ability of a senior leader to recognize evil, articulate that to others, and then take action is truly a characteristic of the greatest of senior leaders.
When I ask people about what is “evil” in the world, I get many answers. Ultimately, the result is simple. No one can define it clearly. While they cannot tell me what evil is they know it when they see it. This is a popular view of evil and is an emotional based argument. Many argue that evil must be seen through the lens of reasoning, history, religion, and wisdom. A few people have even said that there is no such thing as evil. A fashionable modern view is that evil is only a religious judgment.
Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany is the most common contemporary example used to help define evil. Hitler was responsible for the planned and officially sanctioned extermination of approximately 6 million Jews and another 5 million “undesirables”. This does not include the deaths resulting directly from the war itself.
Russia’s Joseph Stalin is another illustration used less often because many in American still praise him and his socialist government. Estimates are very crude, but those killed directly by Stalin’s purges and those that died of starvation and neglect is approximately 60 million.
Defining evil based on deaths attributable to a government or to a “strong man” is fraught with many serious problems. The most important, of course, is why someone didn’t act to prevent it in the first place. Is allowing evil to flourish also evil? Some will say that evil is defined as the encouragement of and conduct of activities that are illegal, immoral, and unethical. Evil is something that is bad for the country, they say.
Recognizing evil however is not an easy thing. Many of us simply disagree what is evil. This is why great senior leaders are able to “see” evil early enough to help us all recognize evil and see it early enough to act.
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