Once again, let’s borrow from Google. One goes to it for everything, but just now the motto seems appropriate. Evil should be a grand word, set to powerful musical chords and with thunder and lightning accompanying its declamation. And yet, if you read the newspapers and listen to the news on the television, you realise how stupid it is, how banal. In Hannah Arendt’s phrase, ‘the word-and-thought-defying banality of evil’ is really unbelievable.
Agatha Christie, whose mysteries have delighted generations, once explained why she did not have too many super villains in her stories. She said it was all right as long as the villain could stay hidden in some underground cavern or could hide behind the mask of the high-born socialite, but once he was unmasked, he became mortal, and so ordinary and unimpressive that the whole story lost its point.
You see the same banality in the present scenario in our state in the transgressions and the rule breaking that is going on. All right, the virus is a big evil to be fought and all that is possible is being done to fight it. That lies in the background. The foreground is occupied by petty yet dangerous transgressions. What do you do with the people who may not be evil in themselves, but do evil? This evil individual is the person who sets out to visit people without thinking he is taking with him possible infection, it is the person who sneezes on the packet on the shelf at the supermarket, without bothering to cover his face and mouth, not even wondering if he has left behind some traces of the virus, it is the youngster who has come out on a lockdown day just to see what the city looks like bereft of crowds, it is the family that goes on a joy ride since the streets are empty. These people do not intend to be evil and would be most indignant if they are told that their behaviour is evil, indeed, wicked. And yet their behaviour is not just irresponsible, thinking of the large consequences that a simple piece of carelessness can carry, one has to dignify it with the word evil.
You wonder what it is about the clear instructions given that these people do not understand, or perhaps understand but do not feel they are bound by them. They believe that rules are for others, are sure that they are not carriers of viruses or germs. They may or may not be. But they do not count the cost in terms of the impact their thoughtless deeds have had on the lives of others and the already stretched resources of a medical system that is struggling to cope. Just staying at home, that should not be too difficult to understand.
Why do people feel that rules are for others and do not apply to themselves, that they are above all that? Why do they feel that they know better than medical experts and the administrative set up of the state and the country that is trying to fight a pandemic? In an earlier column we had talked about individuals who feel privileged, feel that the rules that apply to ordinary people do not apply to them. In normal times, such people are just irritating, one rants a bit and forgets about them. Though one feels that they ought to be stopped, it seems too much trouble to do so. But when rules become important in the saving of lives, such carelessness is impossible to understand.
Evil does not come clad in grandeur and or even strength and power. It often comes in the guise of small people doing small things to cause large dangers. The instructions not followed, the precautions not taken, the door not shut properly, the red light not heeded, all these can cause loss of life. And at present, it can do worse, if they would only understand. It can cause the danger of single transmissions multiply itself into social transmission of a disease and set a whole population at risk.
We can only pray that not only that we not be led into temptation, these unthinking people too should not be led into temptation so that we can be delivered from the evil that we are facing.