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Silent good people give evil a break

When bad things are done, or good things left undone, we invariably find bad guys to blame. If we can’t lay it on individual culprits, we at least narrow it down to the other group, the liberals or conservatives, the rich or the poor.

But what are we to say of the Edmund Burke aphorism that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing? Fr. Raymond Schroth quotes it in his essay on Africa’s pain (see story). Since we’re the good people Burke was talking about, it’s not enough in this case to blame the bad guys.

The Schroth article is a harrowing reminder that there’s an awful lot of suffering in the world. This we would prefer to ignore. For a culture that is said to be addicted to violence, we can’t stomach much of it, only the sanitized version on TV. We express horror at the shootings inflicted by thugs and gangs on our streets, but such mayhem is mild compared with the personal and neighborly hacking done in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

We’re basically good, basically well-meaning. If we stop to think about the hurt done to the innocent of Africa, the women and children, our pity runs over. Confronted by our impotence to do anything, we take refuge in our daily lives where our smaller tribulations are more easily assuaged by the personal consolations nearly all of us enjoy.

And perhaps it’s a cheap shot to guiltify such good people as we with faraway suffering. But then returns Burke’s warning: Evil will triumph if we good do nothing.

So round and round the circle goes. How can we do anything that will matter, either to the child-soldiers of Sierra Leone or the warlords elsewhere? Even in this most powerful nation on earth, we individuals are remarkably lacking in clout. Good though we be, we are sadly devoid of the capacity to do big-time good. Or so it seems most of the time.

And that is how those who do have the clout get off the hook: Burke’s “good men” don’t hold their feet to the fire.

Pause and consider the huge energy that went into the Monica Lewinsky frenzy. Observe those absurd politicians posturing so that alleged evil would not triumph. They got away with it because we did nothing.

What should we have done? No one knows, or more people of good will would already be doing it. Not that it’s a mystery, like the metaphysical conundrum of evil. Rather it’s just an intractable glitch in the way our lives together have evolved. And if it can be fixed, we are obliged, being good people, to search for a way to fix it.

The person with most clout all along was President Clinton. Schroth’s article is a terrific indictment of expedience and self-interest turning Clinton’s gaze away from the killing fields of Africa as it had so readily been turned away from the slaughter of Bosnia.

What could we do? A thousand things. But in the face of that awful suffering our best efforts seem a thousand helpless gestures. Write to our senator? Organize a march? What good will that do vis-à-vis Slobodan Milosovich or the Hutu killers? We shouldn’t fool ourselves that we have ready answers. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves that that gets us off the hook.

There is a basic debate that needs to be joined about what good people can and should do. World events demand that the debris of old answers and clichés be stripped away. Our old pieties were no use to the Tutsis who begged to be shot by U.N. troops to avoid being hacked to death by Hutu killers. Even in that we failed them.

Yet most of us are basically good. That means there is something we must do.

It is better to say we don’t know what that something is than to pretend we know; better to stand naked on ground zero and say we don’t know why such people, who got so little out of life, were killed amid such terror. On our planet in our century.

There is one thing we can do for starters. One thing we can’t not do. We can look at them. Not turn away from them. Keep them in our minds. Speak of them. Think and speak of their pain; of the unspeakable injustice; of the politicians no one had the courage or strategy to hold accountable. Think and speak of all this until it becomes unpopular and unseemly not to think of them and speak of their pain.

Good people that we are, it’s the least we can do.

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 1999