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Arresting the evil that lurks within us

I heard of a disturbing incident recently. Some young schoolchildren came across a cute little stray kitten in their compound. Far from being enticed by its innocence, they decided to pick it up and throw it against a wall. Repeatedly. Picture the scene: the tiny, helpless animal tries desperately to escape; the children grab it again and again to hurl it against the wall, as though it is a toy in their game.

Rest easy: the kitten was rescued by good samaritans, and now has a new home.

I met the kitten en route to its new abode. It was fortunately not too badly hurt. But the incident sent me into a deep gloom. What is it about human beings? We claim to be noble creatures full of sympathy, empathy, pity and compassion, do we not? Then how can little children, whom we regard as innocents themselves, be capable of such merciless torture?

Some would be quick to tell me that a harsh and poverty-stricken upbringing brings out the worst in any child; but the institution in question was not a slum school. It houses relatively affluent, middle-class children.

My mind went back to a shocking incident from the past. In 1993 James Bulger, a child not yet three years old, was enticed away from his mother in Liverpool in the United Kingdom by two older boys. He was then forcibly dragged away, taken to a railway line, beaten and tortured to death and left lying on the rail tracks so that an oncoming train would cut his body in two.

The two killers were captured soon after. They showed no remorse. They were both ten years old at the time, and dressed in their school uniforms.

I recall that Britain was thrown into a paroxysm of horror and introspection. How can young killers like this coexist in a society that prides itself on its enlightenment, sense of fair play and civility? The two boys were found to come from broken homes with abusive parents – but was that the cause of their heartless brutality?

The innocent kitten can easily become the innocent toddler. It is the same cruelty, the same inability to feel sympathy or pity. It is what causes women to be gang-raped and killed by baying mobs; it is what leads terrorists to feel not a jot of remorse when slaughtering innocents who have done nothing to them.

Here in Kenya people shop in comfort at the Westgate Mall, forgetting the cries of those slaughtered there less than three years ago. At Garissa University, we are no closer to understanding what led to the ruthless massacre of students there in 2015. And in many parts of this country following the awful 2007 election, Kenyans turned on their neighbours with astonishing cruelty, raping, slaughtering and pillaging.

It is not very different elsewhere. The history of humankind has vicious massacre as a recurring theme. It is estimated that hundreds of millions of humans were killed by other humans in the 20th century. Our enemies are not just diseases or disasters; we are perfectly capable of destroying ourselves.

Human beings have what biologist Lyall Watson calls a “dark nature” in his book of the same name. There is something merciless and vicious inside us. If awakened, this nature is as evil as anything out there. And it is not, as Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn pointed out, as though we can separate the evil people from the good and deal with them; for “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

But here’s the thing: it need not be this way. I believe we are human precisely because we have the capacity to go for the higher ideal, the bigger deal. We must fight our base natures and rise above them. We must be better than savages wallowing in cruelty, no matter how challenging our circumstances. If we permit rampant brutality to grow unchecked, we will have no society left. That is the lesson of history. Everyone’s history.

So how must we deal with something so very depressing? When I think back to the children torturing that kitten, I think of their parents and teachers. They are the ones who have failed. The solution lies in understanding the evil within, and then learning how to counter it. Allow me to continue on that theme right here, next Sunday.

(Sunday Nation, 1 May 2016)

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