Wickedness and Virtue
As soon as the extent of the terror attack at Westminster was known, several friends of the murderer, Khalid Masood, announced that he was a “lovely man, always smiling and joking.”
However, after this “lovely” man checked out of his hotel on that March morning, off he went on the rampage in London, mowing down numerous people before stabbing a House of Commons policeman to death.
So he wasn’t such a nice man after all. When his crime record was searched, it was discovered that he had “form”, and had been jailed in 2003 for possession of a knife. At that time, another friend claimed: “This is a great shock to me…It’s hard to take in that this is the same bloke.”
In a local paper, there was a school picture of smiling Masood with a statement underneath: “His arms folded, he gives no clue as to the murderous path he will take.
Did they expect him to scowl and hold up a sign reading, “Here is a future serial murderer”?
Shades of Grey
The assumption that external appearances and everyday behaviour are any sort of guide to the full extent of a person’s intentions is clearly dotty. Of course, unless he was bonkers, Masood would have done his utmost to hide the plans that were likely to bring horror to all he encountered on his murderous enterprise. The illusion held by many today is that we are either wholly good or wholly bad. This notion has a long genesis. Apparently Socrates, Plato and Aristotle believed in the “unity of the virtues”, insisting that any bad person was bound to possess the totality of wickedness, and a “good” person was bound to possess not just some, but all the virtues.
This attitude is represented in the 1950s film High Noon. There stands the epitome of virtue and courage, Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper), pitted against Frank Miller, cast as the essence of wickedness. The Kane character is, of course, perched on the moral high ground. Off set, this “pure” image is somewhat tarnished as actor Gary Cooper was having a raunchy affair with his leading lady, Grace Kelly. So when reality kicks in, morals often squeak in second – what’s new?
Recently we learnt of the death of the one-time head of the IRA, Martin McGuinness. In his early life, he was a widow maker on an industrial scale, responsible for many hundreds of deaths and atrocities. Then terrorist McGuinness suddenly decided to go into peace-making politics, and having arranged an amnesty for himself and his cronies, was promoted to hero and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.
His funeral was attended by Alastair Campbell – who wrote a flowery tribute outlining his latter-day virtues in the Guardian – and Bill Clinton, who told the weeping congregation what delightful company Martin had been. Some other people – like Norman Tebbit, whose wife Margaret has been crippled since 1984 as a direct result of the bomb planted (at McGuinness’s supposed command) in the Brighton Grand Hotel – had less complimentary things to say. McGuinness never said he was sorry. Apparently when faced with awkward questions, he let it be known that the “peace process” was merely the continuation of terrorist activity by other means, and so as far as he was concerned there was nothing to be sorry about: “We all have blood on our hands, don’t we?” was the sentiment he offered to deflect hard questions.
So McGuinness was not only a cold-eyed killer but he was also capable of great acts of kindness, and devotedly looked after his wife and four children.
Jekyll and Hyde
Of course, a mix of wickedness and virtue is at the heart of most of Shakespeare’s plays. None of his characters are wholly virtuous or villainous either. In recent times, Hitler’s secretaries disclosed what a delightful, kind and considerate boss he was. And Hitler’s sidekick, Heinrich Himmler – the SS killer who devised the “Final Solution” that killed 6 million Jews – was the subject of a film called The Decent One, which showed the charming and tender correspondence between him, his wife and children. Himmler also expressed great concern about the effect mass murder was having on his gassing and shooting troops.
That depravity and decency can coexist in individuals is demonstrated by Robert Louis Stevenson in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which I wrote about in my last commentary.
How tidy it would be if we could collect all the good guys in one camp and all the evil ones in another. However, as Solzhenitsyn wrote, there is a thread of evil that runs through the hearts of all men (and women too).
Where does all this leave us? How self-aware are we? I have often thanked God that I wasn’t born German a generation or two earlier, for in my prime I was blond, thin-lipped and blue eyed, all straight from central casting. I could have played a credible Nazi officer in any of the 1950s Second World War black and white films.
But what about real life? On our last French holiday, I visited Oradour Sur Glane, where, on 10 June 1944, the Das Reich battalion under Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann massacred over 600 people as reprisal for some trivial offence or other. Later, of course, it was discovered that Oradour was the wrong village, but what did that matter to the Nazis in wartime when lives were so cheap and soldiers brutalised? One of the defences offered at the 1946 trial of the surviving murderers was that this massacre was nothing compared to the ghastly crimes conducted in Eastern Russia only a few months before.
On the command of President de Gaulle, Oradour remains untouched these past decades, a silent memorial to the fallen French civilians of the Second World War.
I occasionally imagine myself aged 19 or so, and under Diekmann’s command. Ordered to shoot hundreds of women and children, what would I have done? Rather than be shot myself, I suspect I would have obeyed the order.
Then I would have been a war criminal, a monster rightly to be hunted down like a dog.
I think that the sentence in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead me not unto temptation” is a prayer to Almighty God that we might be spared facing such soul-shattering choices.
So virtuous reader, what would you have done? How depraved might you have become if cruel circumstances had obliged you to face an unspeakable choice? And if you had machine-gunned innocent women and children, would your childhood and university friends all say how jolly and kind you usually were, and then announce how surprised they were that you – of all people – had turned out to be a soulless mass murderer?