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When ‘evil comes up softly like a flower’

With perspicuous insight, the French poet Charles Baudelaire painted in words the nature of evil and how it seduces us. In the preface of his collection of poems, “Les fleurs du mal,” he describes the satanic figure as a “delicate monster”—“eye brimming with an involuntary tear/ He dreams of gallows while smoking his hookah.”

A truly evil thing—the kind that sends millions of people to gas chambers and killing fields, or starves them in the name of grand narratives like the “Great Leap Forward,” or treats them as mere collateral damage in technologically sanitized wars or in bloody campaigns against drugs—these do not come to pass without some compelling reason that serves as legitimation.

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It is usually for a cause that touches the core of our beliefs and aspirations, whether it be national mythologies such as the superiority of the Aryan race and its more benign counterparts—Europe’s “white man’s burden” and America’s “manifest destiny”—or visions of a future fueled by religious or ideological conviction, such as those of jihadists, the Religious Right and the Ku Klux Klan in America, or revolutionaries ensconced in the safe havens of Europe, still dreaming of a classless society. In the service of these ends, people do horrendous things that require the silencing of conscience, the repression of their more humane instincts, and the hardening of the will such that they become unfeeling killing machines.

When evil comes to us, it is not without a kind of wicked charm. We enter into a world of moral ambiguities.

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We laugh, in spite of ourselves, when someone in power makes a joke that we know is in really bad taste. We put up with roughness and bad language because there is a kernel of truth to what is being said. We are drawn to the rough-and-ready approach to solving problems, tired as we are of the abstract verbiage of ideologues and the futile plans of technocrats.

The ambiguities soon melt, however, into a liquid morass where we can no longer tell fact from fiction. What is said in the clarity of daylight gets retouched, massaged and obscured, and finally lost in the shadows as an army of trolls and official mouthpieces spew obfuscation for the consumption of a public lulled by a cloud of unknowing.

It is standard modus operandi for Faustian demagogues to turn the media into instruments of mass deception. When a leader starts to rant against the media and other critical voices, it is only a one-step descent into autocratic rule.

Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels held as a maxim for the practice of his staff the subliminal virtues of routinizing false rhetoric: “If you repeat a lie often enough,” he said, “sooner or later, people will believe it.”

In many cases, it is not even necessary to tell an outright lie. All it takes is to make us lose a sense of proportion. Sen. Panfilo Lacson supplies a glaring instance: Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs hits hard on drug users and pushers, but is “evidently wanting in the supply constriction effort.” A poor kid gets mercilessly shot for mere suspicion of using drugs, but a presidential son said to be involved in a P6.4-billion shipment of high-grade shabu from China is quickly absolved and the people responsible for letting it slip into the country are not likely to be punished or even identified.

The Bible warns us that violence and falsehood go together. When “truth has fallen in the public square,” as the prophet Jeremiah once put it, “violence grows strong in the land.”

Unconsciously, we have adapted to the sight of so many dead bodies sprawled in our streets, lying in their own blood. Desensitized, our souls shrivel up, like the frog that slowly dies by incremental heat applied to the water.

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An ectoplasm has now wrapped itself around us like a toxic fog, neutralizing us into etherized complicity.

We have so descended into the dark underground of our brutish selves that we are no longer shocked by statements like this: “The ones who died in Bulacan, 32, in a massive raid, that is good. We could just kill another 32 every day, then maybe we could reduce what ails this country.”

“Woe to those who call evil good,” we are told. Woe to those of us also who unwittingly become misguided minions of the “angel of light,” that originator of projects that pose as good and then turn out in the end to be gruesome social experiments.

Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is president and board chair of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.

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