Although the word might be assumed to have a specifically religious connotation, it is commonly used by Western secular leaders, too, as philosopher John Gray observed :
“When Barack Obama vows to destroy Isis’s ‘brand of evil’ and David Cameron declares that Isis is an ‘evil organisation’ that must be obliterated, they are echoing Tony Blair’s judgment of Saddam Hussein: ‘But the man’s uniquely evil, isn’t he?’“And yet there is a widespread divergence concerning how that word is understood across society. Even among my own close associates, there are huge differences in terms of how we each interpret the word. This suggests a paradox: the word is used all the time, but there is little common agreement on what it means. I would argue that this disparity of understanding about ‘evil’ is not just a trivial one concerning the precise semantics of a single word, but points to significant cultural differences that have been at the root of many social problems.
In this context Maziar Bahari’s documentary film, And Along Came a Spider (Va Ankaboot Amad, 2003) , which on the surface is simply an account of an unrepentant serial killer in modern Iran, is actually much more profound than that – it is an interesting (and disturbing) exploration of how ‘evil’ is understood.
The subject of the documentary is Saeed Hanaei, a resident of Mashhad who carried out a secret campaign of personally murdering prostitutes. From July 2000 to July 2001 Hanaei killed 16 prostitutes by luring them one-by-one into his apartment while his wife was out and then suffocating them and disposing of the bodies. Because of his procedure of inviting the prostitutes to his home, he was later likened by the press to a spider luring flies to its web and became known as the “spider killer”.
The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad Ma-ra Khahad Bord, 1995), Going By (Az Kenar-e Ham Migozarim, 2001), The Deserted Station (Istgah-Matrouk, 2002), The Wind Carpet (Kaze no Jûtan, 2003), Crimson Gold (Talaye Sorkh, 2003), Friday’s Soldiers, (Sarbaz-haye Jome, 2004), and Fireworks Wednesday (Chaharshanbe Suri, 2006)).
The film mostly avoids any polemical or moralistic voiceover commentary and unobtrusively allows these people to speak for themselves. It is left to the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions. And depending on one’s moral perspective, each viewer might draw different conclusions concerning what is shown.
There is no real suspense concerning what is shown. In the first eight minutes of this 53-minute film, the basic facts of the case are already laid before the viewer. In fact even before the film’s titles are presented, we learn that Hanaei is a convicted murderer and proud of what he has done. As the film proceeds, it shows that he decided to kill prostitutes after becoming enraged when a Mashhad taxi driver mistook his wife for a prostitute. But although Hanaei confesses to Ms. Karimi that revenge was a motive for his deeds, he feels that his murders were in accordance with Islamic doctrine. He felt that he was removing “pollution” from the world in alignment with the Prophet’s teachings. In fact he mentions that he had lined up 80 more women to kill and would have carried out his plans if he hadn’t been apprehended by the law.
Still in the film’s first eight minutes, the attention quickly turns to Hanaei’s family. Saeed’s brothers (those that are shown, anyway) feel that he did the right thing. As one of them says, “but, frankly, a whore doesn’t have an ounce of humanity.” Saeed's mother expresses similar sentiments. Saeed;s teenage son, Ali, expresses admiration for what his father has done and regards him as a hero. He even suggests that he would like to emulate his father’s actions someday. Similarly, Saeed’s wife, Fatemeh, who was unaware of the murders prior to his arrest, also admires him and says,
“When a woman rides on a motorbike with a man she doesn’t know at all, the punishment for this woman is nothing less than death.”
Interspersed among this material are comments from the victim side of this story. One of them is an 18-year-old girl, Mahasti, who was never approached by Hanaei, but is presented as a typical young prostitute. She has been a prostitute for the past five years and is shown only in silhouette. She was forced into marriage when she was 10-years-old and then bullied by her husband into prostitution to support his drug dependence. Her testimony probably epitomizes the experiences of most prostitutes, who are themselves victims of a society that has left many of them impoverished and in servitude.
Also shown are two young daughters of another of Hanaei’s victims, and they sadly talk about their lives and the loss of their mother.
Finally the film comes to Hanaei’s arrest and trial. The hardliners exonerated him, and one hardline newspaper asked its readers,
“Who is to be judged? Those who seek to eradicate the sickness or those who stand at the root of the corruption?”
Although And Along Came a Spider tells the story of an implacable murderer, the real issue here is evil. Depending on how your attitude about evil, you might see Saeed Hanaei as
- a psychopath
- a normal product of a corrupt culture
- a possible product of any culture, since all current cultures have embedded within them the seeds to produce people like Saeed Hanaei
- Evil derived from religion (religionists)
- Evil as an innate psychological concept (many modern secularists)
- Those who deny the semantic usefulness of the term evil (evil-skeptics)
But or course the concept of evil brought in serious philosophical problems for these monotheistic religions. How could an all-powerful creator of the universe, who is supposed to represent everything that is good, allow evil to exist in His creation? Theologians have struggled with this question for centuries, and about the only answer they have come up with has been that the Lord works in mysterious ways – it’s all too much for our finite brains to fathom. Nevertheless, the concept of evil is used in these religions and applied to individuals. A person, like Hitler, can be considered to be evil and a “waste of blood”.
2. Evil According to Many Modern Secularists
As John Gray has pointed out, even in our modern secular world that is inspired by notions from Western scientific rationalism over the past three centuries, the concept of evil is widely invoked . Secular modernists, like the religionists, can focus on the individual, but they may not always use the word ‘evil’. Instead they dismiss a miscreant as a “psychopath” – essentially meaning a defective biological organism. Thus people like Hitler and Osama Bin Laden are sometimes said to have been psychopaths. In many cases, however, the secular concept of evil is applied not to an individual, but to a whole cultural grouping, such as ISIS in the Middle East.
- Killer1. He intends to kill his victims
- Killer2. He has command of great destructive power and sometimes out of negligence kills victims as “collateral damage”.
In any case, both Harris and Chomsky see evil as arising from an evil culture. In Harris’s case the evil culture is Islam, while in Chomsky’s case the evil culture is American Exceptionalism. If they looked at Saeed Hanaei’s actions, they would both probably focus on the evil social circumstances that led to his crimes, rather than on the evil inside his soul.
A third attitudinal grouping about evil comprises those who feel that evil is a useless concept and ought to be dispensed with. As Todd Calder summarises :
“Evil-skeptics give three main reasons to abandon the concept of evil: (1) the concept of evil involves unwarranted metaphysical commitments to dark spirits, the supernatural, or the devil; (2) the concept of evil is useless because it lacks explanatory power; and (3) the concept of evil can be harmful or dangerous when used in moral, political, and legal contexts, and so, it should not be used in those contexts, if at all.”
It seems evident then that these three groupings would view Saeed Hanaei differently
- Many religionists would consider Hanaei to be fundamentally evil, although some of them (the hardliners) might align themselves with Hanaei’s own arguments and consider him to have been doing God’s work by erasing those who are a “waste of blood”.
- Many secular rationalists would likely dismiss Hanaei as a psychopath, although some would see him as a victim of an evil culture. Note that Sam Harris’s focus on Islamic culture as generating evil is probably not balanced, and it is easily countered by examples from the US, such as Ted Bundy  and the My Lai Massacre [6,7].
- Evil-skeptics are likely to suggest that the notion of evil merely causes further harm by legitimising cruelty on the part of individuals who lack empathy and compassion in their efforts to combat what they believe is evil, such as was the case with Saeed Hanaei. We need new and better social mechanisms to nurture more empathy and to guide those who have difficulties or deficiencies in feeling empathy.
- Killing other humans for the purposes of satisfying one's own selfish material interests.
- Killing other humans for the purposes of personal revenge.
- Killing other humans in order to assist God in eliminating those who are a “waste of blood”.
- Killing other humans in wartime in order to serve one's own country’s interests.
- Killing and eating animals for pleasure (and because so many other people do it)
Maybe in order to deal with the problem of evil, it is time for everyone to get off that ladder altogether. And Along Came a Spider closes not on the image of Hanaei being hanged, but on the smiling, wistful face of one of Hanaei’s victim’s daughters. There is no place for evil in that image.
- John Gray, “The Truth About Evil”, The Guardian, (21/10/2014).
- And Along Came a Spider is available on YouTube. You can find a copy of the film here.
- Todd Calder, “The Concept of Evil”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (26/11/2013).
- Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky, “The Limits of Discourse”, Sam Harris, The Blog, (1 May 2015).
- “Ted Bundy”, Wikipedia, (15/5/2015).
- “My Lai Massacre”, Wikipedia (15/5/2015).
- Consider this example of malevolence carried out by a Western society on the Vietnamese village of My Lai (from Jonathon Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, (1999), Yale Univ. Press, p. 58.):
“Early in the morning the soldiers were landed in the village by helicopter. Many were firing as they spread out, killing both people and animals. There was no sign of the Vietcong battalion and no shot was fired at Charlie Company all day, but they carried on. They burnt down every house. They raped women and girls and then killed them. They stabbed some women in the vagina and disemboweled others, or cut off their hands or scalps. Pregnant women had their stomachs slashed open and were left to die. There were gang rapes and killings by shooting or with bayonets. There were mass executions. Dozens of people at a time, including old men, women and children, were machine-gunned in a ditch. In four hours nearly 500 villagers were killed.”