How do we deal with war crime?

The horrors of Bucha have reminded us that humans are capable of evil on a huge scale

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This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Evil is back.

It hadn’t gone away, of course, but for us living comfortably in the West, evil was something perpetrated by mass murderers or serial sex offenders but not by ordinary people.

One of the more common things I’ve heard as a priest is people jokingly telling me that they couldn’t possibly make their confession as they’ve been far too evil, and I wouldn’t have the time.

My response, almost invariably, would be to ask when was the last time they’d committed genocide. (And yes, for the uninitiated, Anglicans do do Confession: it’s not only encouraged in the Prayer Book but Queen Elizabeth I famously said, “All may, none must, some should.” If you’re in the “should” category, feel free to get in touch.)

How do we inoculate ourselves against evil?

But now evil is back. Back at the forefront of our minds. Genocide? Possibly. Crimes against humanity? Certainly. On a huge scale. By ordinary people. The horrors in Bucha (the men with their hands tied behind their back, shot in the head, the women, naked, burned to a crisp) and the horrors that our broadcasters have spared us (the girls, some as young as three, genitalia ripped apart from multiple rapes) have reminded us that humanity is capable of evil on a vast scale.

The people doing it have thought themselves good people and will still be thought by neighbours and friends and families to be good people. And yet they are not.

And this moves the ethical problem on to us. How do we deal with people committing atrocious crimes? This isn’t an abstract question, because evil is infectious and we are all within range. It starts with one person, but what they do causes a reaction well beyond their own soul. It tempts some to follow in their footsteps, but it also tempts those of us outraged by their actions to acts of evil in return for evil.

The “we” here needs, to a certain degree, to be separated out. For most of us, the “we” is fairly hands off. We’re not on the front line and we’re unlikely to encounter any of the people committing any atrocities ourselves.

But there is another “we”, made up of people whose families have suffered directly the horrors of this war, who will have known people slaughtered on Vladimir Putin’s order, and who might find themselves face to face with a murderer in the near future.

There is very clearly a huge difference between those facing these horrors directly and those facing them through social media and the television news. But the ethical question is the same, and it is a tough one. How do we inoculate ourselves against evil?

There is really only one way: the humanity of others, even those who have committed crimes against humanity. Or, for us Christians, to try to see the face of Christ in those who have put Christ’s people on the Cross. It’s not easy. From the depths of our human nature comes the urge to make them suffer, and to rejoice in their suffering.

That way, whoever wins, evil wins

But when we do this, when we, for example, treat Russian prisoners in the way they treated Ukrainian civilians, we turn into them. When we laugh as we watch their deaths on a screen, we turn into them. We allow the basest level of our nature to triumph in the same way they have done.

The hardest path, but the essential one, is to afford them the dignity which they have stripped from so many others. To treat even the worst Russian soldiers as fellow children of God, as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, even when they have tried to drown that image in the blood of innocents. That is the only way to preserve our humanity.

It’s a vaccine against all the different evil responses to an evil act. This doesn’t mean that killing may not be necessary. Winning the war against a regime which seems set on tyranny and slaughter is no evil in and of itself, and that involves using all the lethal force you can, within the rules of war.

But if you are going to kill, and to kill on the kind of scale necessary to beat an army such as Russia’s, it’s essential to take this vaccine; it’s essential not to be dehumanised by dehumanising others.

This is not easy. It’s much easier to call an enemy an orc and treat them in our minds as if they were not human. But that way lies the road to more Buchas, to more slaughter, to more evil. That way, whoever wins, evil wins.

But we have a choice, each of us, near and far. And it applies, of course, to much lesser evils as much as to the horrors we have been focused upon these last few months. And in those choices we each decide whether to shine a little more light in the world or allow the darkness to creep that little bit further forward.

I pray that we have the grace to choose the former.

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