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Facing Evil

100 days ago, evil pierced civilization’s thin veneer of comity. In the wake of the to the 10/7 massacre and the ensuing war, how should we define, identify and defeat evil?

An extended version of reflections published in Psychology Today and Currents: Briefs on Contemporary Israel


I live in Jerusalem, close to the 1967 line. One hundred days ago, standing in our balcony, I witnessed a show of fireworks and shots. My Palestinian neighbors in the nearby village of Issawiya and the Shuafat refugee camp greeted the October 7 massacre with joyful celebration. “They have a stockpile of firearms,” I told my wife, “It’s a five-minute walk from here. They can easily try something similar in our neighborhood. Why wouldn’t they?” After hesitating, she agreed that we take our children to stay with my parents, who live in a safer part of the city.


A day later we brought them back. I am still worried. It can happen at any moment. Even before Oct 7, Hamas leaders encouraged Palestinians in Jerusalem to “buy 5-shekel knives and cut off the heads of the Jews.” Now, if a couple of hundred of our armed neighbors are inspired by 10/7 to go at dawn on a rampage of bloodshed, they may well succeed. I still wonder: Why wouldn’t they? Nothing here can really stop them – except themselves. Fear? If so, I hope, perhaps foolishly, that it’s also fear for their own humanity, fear of becoming evil.

Francisco Goya, Scene of kidnapping and murder , 1808
Francisco Goya, Scene of kidnapping and murder , 1808

Evil. An unnerving word most academics rarely use unless they study how other people use it. We fear, for good reasons, Nietzsche’s abyss: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”


That much is true: thinking in terms of Good and Evil may be a precondition, often a prelude, to becoming evil. Yet that evil cycle and its horrid effects are precisely why we should look long and carefully into the abyss; Some people do think and behave in ways that warrant this moral mark, and we should fight them as such. This is my hopeful attempt to face evil, to figure it out, and suggest how we should fight and can defeat it, focusing on the 10/7 carnage and the war in its wake.

Issachar Ber Ryback, Pogrom in Kiev, a nursing baby from a murdered mother, 1918
Issachar Ber Ryback, Pogrom in Kiev, a nursing baby from a murdered mother, 1918

The 10/7 carnage was the bloodiest day for Jews since the Holocaust. But then we didn’t have social media. Now many reasonably advise not to watch the horrific images of the massacre. I have failed to heed this sound advice. I realize this is my personal way of coping: I prefer to face the horrors, hoping I can understand something, anything.

We are all, quite literally, human animals, and it is the “human,” not the “animal,” part that drives atrocities.

I understand little. Here is one thing I think I do: The comparison to Nazism is warranted not because Hamas perpetrators, like the Nazis, are not human, but because like them, they are. The Holocaust, like the massacre, reveal the darkest parts of what it means to be human; non-human animals do not butcher for beliefs. Israelis sometimes call terrorists “human animals” to excuse inexcusable acts that Israel carries out in ostensible retaliation. But we are all, quite literally, human animals, and it is the “human,” not the “animal,” part that drives atrocities. It is precisely because these acts are human that we can, and should, better understand, denounce, and fight them.

How then should we deal with evil? How can we fight and defeat it?

Evil means treating people as obstacles to be removed or assets to be (ab)used for one’s benefits or pleasure.

First, by defining it and identifying it. We should determine what “evil” means and then detect its agents and their enablers. My working definition of evil is simple enough: evil treats humans as things. Evil means seeing, and behaving toward, people as obstacles to be removed or assets to be (ab)used for one’s benefits or pleasure (Kant’s self-conceit); either way, evil treats humans as things to be discarded.


The implication is clear, and troubling, enough: we all harbor evil. This “banality of evil” drives some to resigned nihilism: we’re all bad, nothing matters. But it should motivate us in the opposite direction: to be involved, to think things through, to devise our own conscience, individual and public, and to act accordingly.

if fighting monsters means becoming one, if defeating evil means becoming evil, we fought for naught

When we treat evil, we should tread with caution, recalling Nietzsche’s abyss: the more we think in dichotomous go(o)d-(d)evil, the more we become prone to become evil ourselves. To state the obvious, if fighting monsters means becoming one, if defeating evil means becoming evil, we fought for naught.


Benign human development often helps us avoid dichotomous thinking and feeling; most people gradually come to possess what psychologists call “object constancy”: realizing that people are complex, and that by doing something bad, one does not necessarily become bad, let alone evil. Some people, however, whether through arrested development (as with borderline or narcissistic personality disorders) or other circumstances, lack or lose object constancy and instead turn to “splitting,” that is, black-and-white, or all-or-nothing, thinking.


Splitting is often the springboard into Nietzsche’s abyss, which becomes deeper, darker still, amidst atrocities. Facing horrendous acts, how can you not consider their perpetrators and supporters evil, and thus opt to treat them as non-human things to do away with – thereby becoming evil yourself?

To fight evil without becoming it, we should hone a moral prism to identify it, and calibrate a moral compass to navigate the fight against it.

There is no panacea, no easy way of seeing and fighting evil without becoming it. There are two partial remedies: honing a moral prism to identify evil; calibrating a moral compass to navigate the fight against it.


We should not behold our moral universe through bicameral black-and-white glasses but through a spectrum-prism. While the idea of evil invites a binary go(o)d-(d)evil morality, it is better to think of morality as a light spectrum of colors and shades, each with a different wavelength that a sharp prism might help discern.

Scientifically, black and white don’t count as true, physical colors. The same applies to human affairs. There is no absolute White, combining all the colors of the spectrum, nor absolute Black – their complete absence (even the super-black Vantablack absorbs 99.965 percent of light, not all of it). Still, some acts, and the people committing them, come close to the darker end of the spectrum. Importantly, evil acts need not indicate an evil person; one becomes evil by constantly and consciously committing such acts, refusing to change course and make amends.

Uppercase Evil can never be killed or defeated. But lowercase evil can be. It was done, it can be done.

Realizing morality through a non-binary prism reveals a paradox: a main impediment to defeating evil is believing it exists – and can be defeated. President Biden proclaimed that Hamas is “pure evil.” He is wrong. Like pure righteousness, or omnibenevolence, “pure evil” – the uppercase Evil – is a metaphysical construct. Actual human beings are not Evil, and thus, unlike mortal people, Evil can never be killed or defeated.

Francisco Goya, Against the common good, 1808-1814
Francisco Goya, Against the common good, 1808-1814

But lowercase evil can be. It was done, it can be done. I wish karma would take care of it, that perpetrators and their enablers will know no rest, and be haunted, for the rest of their life, by the ghosts of their victims. But this is no hope, merely a wishful thinking. In the world as it is, there is no metaphysical shortcut. Defeating evil is up to us, for if we tolerate this, our children will be next.

Distinguishing upper- and lower-case evil is essential but not enough to avoid falling into Nietzsche’s abyss. Believing that Evil exists is one impediment to effectively fighting it; believing evil is everywhere, another. A popular Israeli expert on Iran argued, “there are no innocents in Gaza, there are two and half million terrorists there.” Such views are tempting, especially when facing atrocities. But he is wrong, and dangerous. Evil is rare.

Hurt people hurt? The maxim is tempting but misleading.

Hurt people hurt? The maxim is tempting but misleading. True, hurt is often a necessary condition for hurt. People rarely want to hurt other people, unless they feel hurt themselves. But everyone's hurt. Still, even hurt, most people, most of the time, would not go about hurting others, and certainly not innocent people, that is, those who have not, directly, harmed them.

Butchering babies is one such crude benchmark for evil. What proportion of people worldwide would justify or relish such sadistic acts, let alone perpetrate them? Still, atrocities may plunge us into such vicious cycles of fear and revenge, that we readily assume that’s how the world is, or has become. It hasn’t. People overwhelmingly prefer peace; “we’re the 99%.” Losing sight of that makes us give up the fight right from the start.

We should proceed from honing a prism to see evil to calibrating a compass that may help us navigate and fight it.

We should proceed from honing a prism to see evil to calibrating a compass that may help us navigate and fight it. This task may be increasingly hard in an age of echo chambers, clickbait, and virtual mobs. Social media is such a powerful emotional magnet that it can confuse even the most well-calibrated moral compass.


But try we must, by charting evil’s ethical gradation. Two axes are pivotal to the effort: severity and responsibility. True, we all occasionally treat others, even ourselves, as things – but the extent to which we do it matters a lot. Simply put, the more harm evil does, the more ferociously we should fight it. In an interpersonal relationship, treating your partner as a human GPS to guide you safely home is one thing; gaslighting them so as to quench your thirst for domination, treating people like toys, is quite another.


The same goes for social evil, which takes many to transpire, and affect even more. Its harm varies across sort, scope and scale. Consider Hamas, Bibism, the cult of personality around Israeli PM Netanyahu (Bibi), and antisemitism. Hamas is a genocidal, sadistic organization. Bibism is a noxious ultranationalist movement. Anti-Semitism is a malicious, and nowadays quite modish, ideology and practice, targeting Jews for being Jewish. They inhabit different loci upon the vast moral spectrum between good and bad, between the virtuous and the vile, e.g., though bearing much responsibility for aiding Hamas and weakening Israel, Bibism is not inherently murderous.


The three evils have changed over time. The 10/7 carnage greatly amplified the bloodthirsty evil that Hamas is. Bibism has brought its damage to new heights throughout the past year and is now undermining the efforts to effectively fight Hamas and foster Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. And Antisemitism, which peaked at the holocaust, mounts rhetorically and violently amidst the current crisis. These three social evils are intersecting to create a perfectly devastating storm.

Francisco Goya, Ravages of war, 1808-1814
Francisco Goya, Ravages of war, 1808-1814
We enable evil by boxing in identities: caring more about evildoers in our community than about good people in the rival community.

The social dimension of evil means realizing that while it rarely takes two to tango evil, it always takes two or more to spread it, by commission or omission. An all too familiar way of enabling evil is boxing ourselves and others in identity politics so as to care more about evildoers in our community than about good people in the rival community. It is hard to dispense with this tribal instinct. But here we should summon our unique humanity, our freedom to choose better, even against our own genetic hardware and social software.


Alongside the axis of severity, it matters much if one takes responsibility for their evildoing, and tries to change. This is easier said than done, especially in a generation that encourages people to see themselves as victims, thus infallible. Some Israelis who see the holocaust in the 10/7 carnage seek to inflict the same upon the Palestinians. The latter who see the Nakba in Israel’s response may wish the same on their mortal enemy. Both communities often see themselves as righteous victims.

We should be willing to give up on humans who have given up on the good in their own humanity.

Granted, the best way to stop this vicious cycle is stop hurting, and start caring. Whether motivated by religious turn-the-other-cheek, or a secular liberal creed, or plain fantasy, there is a great appeal to appeasing evil. But when it comes to people, however hurt, who harm innocent others deliberately, who refuse to own up to their choice and actions, who refuse to learn, who refuse to reform – such evil cannot be placated, let alone pacified. It will only get worse. We should be willing to give up on humans who have given up on the good in their own humanity.

Francisco Goya, Up and Down, 1808-1814
Francisco Goya, Up and Down, 1808-1814

At the same time, we must not relinquish our own humanity. However hard, we should always actively choose to treat people, however evil, as humans, and thus, for example, if they are harmed and can do no harm, help them. The best way to avoid falling into the abyss is to never abandon the horizon. 

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WOW! This piece is truly remarkable, profoundly thought-provoking, and incredibly inspiring. Reading it was exactly what I needed. Thank you so much for sharing your insights!

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