Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, died this week of heart failure.
In dying peacefully this way, Mr. Solzhenitsyn merely drew another line underneath his victory over totalitarianism: decades ago, he spent years in prison camps run by the former Communist government of the Soviet Union. The title, "Solzhenitsyn, Literary Giant Who Defied Soviets, Dies at 89" which was how the New York Times started their obituary, says it all.
The Times tells us how his greatest work came to be published:
By this time [when he won the 1970 Nobel prize], Mr. Solzhenitsyn had completed his own massive attempt at truthfulness, "The Gulag Archipelago." In more than 300,000 words, he told the history of the Gulag prison camps, whose operations and rationale and even existence were subjects long considered taboo.
Publishers in Paris and New York had secretly received the manuscript on microfilm. But wanting the book to appear first in the Soviet Union, Mr. Solzhenitsyn asked them to put off publishing it. Then, in September 1973, he changed his mind. He had learned that the Soviet spy agency, the KGB, had unearthed a buried copy of the book after interrogating his typist, Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, and that she had hung herself soon afterward.
He gave his consent and the book was published immediately in France.
He took great risks to defy his government and warn us about self-righteous leaders who're so convinced of the justice of their cause that they become indifferent to human suffering. The Soviet Union may be the greatest example of such a system, but this sort of behavior is by no means restricted to dictatorships.
One of the best-known lines from Gulag is, "in order for men to do great evil, they must first believe they are doing good." What he said about evil being redefined as good helps explain how a government can set up such a vast system of prison camps. It is easier to get the guards to follow your orders if you can convince them that you and they are doing good.
The self-righteousness needed to convince people that maintaining death camps is good becomes a slippery slope leading to horrendous evil not even recognized by its perpetrators, as we have seen from the history of how so many people were abused and murdered during WW II.
At the time we first read his great work and understood the assertion he made, however, we had doubt. We weren't sure that evil people really had to be convinced that they were doing good; we believed that it was possible for evil people to do evil for its own sake particularly when they saw no possibility of their deeds coming back to haunt them. Is it possible to imagine, for instance, that serial killers and monsters like Jeffrey Dahmer somehow convince themselves that what they are doing is good?
Perhaps it isn't; but nobody follows them, they act alone. Consider Osama bin Laden: he has convinced many hundreds of otherwise decent Muslims that it is not only good, but holy, to end their own lives while murdering thousands of innocents.
We've recently described how Ingrid Betancourt was systematically tortured over a period of years by the FARC terrorists. FARC started out as political liberators, but their operations are now funded by the market opportunities created by our ill-considered war on drugs. Illegal businesses don't file financial reports, of course, but the best estimates are that FARC makes $200 million per year dealing drugs and supplies roughly 20% of the cocaine which reaches US market. That much cash flow pays for a lot of guns and foot soldiers.
Drug dealing doesn't make them enough money, however, so they've branched out into kidnapping and other acts of terrorism. They are holding about 700 victims, intending to trade them for money or political advantage. Fidel Castro has urged them to release their victims, arguing that kidnapping for ransom brings disgrace to the very idea of political revolution.
Kidnapping pays, however, which is one reason they do it. It's been reported that the FARC collected a $500,000 ransom for Mrs Betancourt without releasing her, but it isn't just the money.
The New York Times reported that Mrs. Betancourt had been tortured and quoted her as saying that her captors had fallen into "diabolical behavior," adding, "It was so monstrous I think they themselves were disgusted." [emphasis added]
We greatly admire Mr. Solzhenitsyn, but we must respectfully disagree with him. The FARC torturers were disgusted by what they did to Mrs. Betancourt. They were not convinced they were doing good, they knew it was so evil that they disgusted themselves, but they did it anyway.
Mrs. Betancourt got it right, "In any situation like the ones I experienced, perhaps any of us could do those kind of cruel things. For me it was like understanding what I couldn't understand before, how for example the Nazis, how (things like that) could have happened."
No, men don't have to be convinced that they're doing good in order to do evil. Misguided self-righteousness helps people do evil as in the examples of government-sponsored child abuse we've discussed before, but it isn't necessary at all. All that's needed for men to do evil is thinking that they can get away with it.
In discussing threats to the West, Solzhenitsyn warned of "an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man's noblest impulses" and a "tilt of freedom in the direction of evil ... evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent in human nature."
Having spat in the face of evil for years on end, Solzhenitsyn knew that there are evil men in the world, some of them in positions of great economic or military power. It's important that our national leaders be able to recognize evil when they see it. Mr. Solzhenitsyn warned us, Mrs. Betancourt plans to warn us, but will anyone listen to their warnings?
Must we experience evil for ourselves to believe that evil exists?