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Into the heart of darkness

In 1998, Modern Library ranked Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness” as one of the top 100 best works of fiction in the 20th century.

The title has become embedded in our language and represents not just a journey down the Congo River in Central Africa by Conrad’s character, Charles Marlow, an ivory trader, but is today a referent to that place in the human heart wherein resides an inexplicable depravity and evil.

In a recent speech before the United Nations, President Obama turned to Conrad when characterizing ISIL and what has recently occurred in Iraq and Syria, by saying, “The brutality of the terrorists forces us to look into the heart of darkness.”

And indeed, though our first instinct is to turn away at the horror of the beheading of American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and a British aid worker, David Haines, we are compelled, however briefly, to peer into this awful abyss. And we know that the carnage that these zealots leave in their remorseless wake across Iraq, in the guise of righteousness, includes countless men, women and children. How many have been executed, raped, and sold into sexual slavery will never be known. What we do know is that the brutality of this “Islamic State,” this self-described “caliphate,” is unimaginable.

According to the New York Times, young girls have been taken from their dolls and married off to aging jihadists or tied together like so much chattel to be passed around or offered to the highest bidder. Mass executions and beheadings of men have taken place; alleged “infidels,” such as the small religious sect, the Yazidis, of Northern Iraq, have been systematically isolated, starved, and killed; there has been, and continues to be, a sustained slaughter of innocents that is chilling (since the above was written, a French and British citizen have been beheaded).

Of course, we know that evil of this ilk, this pathology, is ever with us, and examples of mayhem and murder, perpetrated by individuals or states, are made evident every day. Our species is capable of the most grotesque inhumanity.

And that reality raises a question that proves all but impossible to answer with any absolute certainty: Can we as a people live Edmund Burke’s admonition, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”?

But confronting evil does not lend itself to clarity or necessarily collective action; rather it is obscured by gradations of gray and equivocation and even a rationalized myopia (how do we explain our own nation’s commitment to slavery?). Hence history is replete with atrocities and cruelties that have been perpetrated not just by religions but also by states.

Our history is strewn with examples: currently, Boko Haram of Nigeria, the mirror of ISIL, practices a scorched earth policy, recently kidnapping 200 schoolgirls from their dormitories (they have never been seen again); the Lord’s Resistance Army of the Congo, perpetrators of murder and abduction and mutilation; and lest we forget, there were the killing fields of Rwanda and Cambodia, and, of course, the forced labor camps of Stalin, replicated today in North Korea.

And then there is the harrowing pathology of Germany during World War II. During the late 1930s and into the ‘40s, the people of Germany embraced a megalomaniac while affirming his delusion of world dominance by what he believed was a master race. An entire nation was caught up in Hitler’s distorted view of the world, and in their name carried out a systematic plan, replete with gas chambers and crematoriums, to eradicate more than 6 million people. Theirs was a form of collective insanity, as insane as videotaping the execution of an innocent man by sawing into his neck with a knife.

The Nazis’ concentration camps defied comprehension, forming a desiccated landscape of barbarity never before seen. What was occurring was unimaginable. But the world soon learned, as we are once again learning, that evil on a massive scale can exist, does exist, and the question posed, as it was posed then, is, what are we morally compelled to do?

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.