The Face of Evil

by rthieme on September 6, 2000

dangeer300px Sometimes the streams of our lives converge in a single river and its power is impossible to resist.

This month many of the passions which have animated much of my adult life converged. As the recipient of the Gamalial Chair in Peace and Justice through the Lutheran ministry at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, I will devote much of October and November to speaking about technology and justice issues in a variety of venues in my home town.

At the same time, new material came into focus for a series of articles I am writing on “Chinatown moments.” Disclosed to me over the past year, these are moments in which different people were told either directly or by circumstances – as Jake Gittes, the “Chinatown” detective, was told by Noah Cross – “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.” In two instances, people were threatened with death, in another an investigator feared for his life when he discovered that a prominent local citizen might have committed murder, and in a fourth, a young computer hacker broke suddenly through a false partition in cyberspace and found himself in freefall in a world more complex and corrupt than he had dreamed.

And at the same time … I interviewed Dan Geer for next month’s Information Security Magazine. Dan Geer is incredibly smart. He is currently Chief Technology Officer for @stake and newly elected president of Usenix. He has a doctorate from Harvard and helped develop the Athena Project and Kerberos at MIT. When you’re talking to a guy like that about computer security and he tells you that he only hires people who are “sadder but wiser,” you pay attention. By that he meant that he wants people who know what’s really at stake. The urgency of their work must be energized by an encounter with the face of evil so they understand what they’re up against and why their work matters.

Geer has a friend who is now a corporate attorney but who was once assistant station chief of the CIA in Beirut. Geer asked about his migration from intelligence to the private sector. His friend had paid plenty of dues – he had been held hostage, for example, for two weeks on a runway – but the defining moment was created by those who had kidnapped his superior, the CIA station chief. Over the next days, they took video tapes of the slow careful process by which they tortured him to death. Geer’s friend watched those tapes, every day. Every single day. Until the body of his colleague was at last lifeless.

“I wish we could talk about our successes,” Brian Snow, the head of NCSC (National Computer Security Center, a division of the National Security Agency) told me, but sources and methods must be protected. So I had to rely on his tone of voice when Snow spoke of what might have happened, indicating an unimaginable scale of death and destruction, to know that Snow too had seen the face of evil.

Reflection on “truth and justice” issues for the Gamaliel Chair, the stakes of the game when spy meets spy, and the stories in those articles all point in the same direction.

Technology transforms what it means to be human. Technology transforms the future by changing how we hold ourselves here and now as possibilities for action. Technology redefines our human enterprise at its core.

New technologies – genetic engineering, instruments of surveillance and social control – deliver power into our hands, and we always use it. Then comes reflection on how to use it, after the fact. But that reflection can impact what we choose to do in the next future, even as the current future becomes the past.

Technology is not about anti-gravity, designer children, or new information channels merely. It is about the entire field of human subjectivity and how we choose to define and direct ourselves. Those questions invoke the ultimate meaning of our lives. Technology enables people to act powerfully but how we act is not determined exclusively by technology.

Either the universe is all meaningless or it is all meaningful. Meaning seems to be a function of complexity. As seemingly isolated events or inert substances are integrated into a complex system, meaning happens. Ultimately the entire universe and its passing shadow which we call spacetime will be integrated into itself … and conscious of itself. At that instant, when the circle is closed, the beginning and the end will be seen to have always been one thing. Consciousness including all of its means of being.

Or put it this way.

“You tell me there’s no God,” said Geer,” and I’ll ask you to look me in the eye and tell me there’s no such thing as evil. If you can’t do the one, you lose the right to do the other.”

The evil of which he speaks is no abstraction. It is the gut-level discovery that comes when we face the worst that human beings can do and know in that harrowing moment that there is another, a better option.

To know the truth, however, there must be disclosure. Without disclosure, there is no truth. Without truth, there is no accountability. Without accountability, there is no justice.

The digital cage in which we flap our wings either hides or discloses the truth. The liberation of the truth and its right uses are the flip sides of the loss of privacy and places to hide. How we build that cage, how we live in it, is not built into digital technology but into our souls. That is where we make decisions about making decisions, and that is where we discover a capacity for freedom that enables us to define our lives as heroic or debased.

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