03/07/2013 10:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Many Faces of Evil

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

In 1977, a 21-year-old political prisoner, Ali Moosavi, was tortured in Evin prison in Tehran, Iran, by SAVAK, the Shah's secret police. Ali was a devout follower of Ayatollah Khomeini, whom the vast majority of Iranians, including Marxists, Islamists, liberals, seculars, etc., came to support during the revolution as the only leader who could unite everyone against the monarchy. Ali was hung from a ceiling in a torture room in Evin. He was beaten for hours and then repeatedly electrocuted. He believed in his cause, which, according to him, had to do with bringing justice and democracy to Iran. To many people, he was a hero.

In 1982, it had been about three years since Iran had become an Islamic republic, but the country was neither free nor democratic. On a daily basis, thousands of young people protested on the streets against the antidemocratic policies of the new regime. Hundreds of protestors were arrested and then tortured in Evin, which was supposed to be shut down with the success of the revolution in 1979, but it wasn't. In 1980, Ali Moosavi became an interrogator/torturer in Evin and tortured teenagers. Iran was at war with Iraq. To Ali, torturing and executing "the enemies of the revolution" was an act of justice and goodness; he believed he was defending Iran's national security and God. Even at this stage, he was a hero to many.

In front of the Iranian Embassy in Stockholm, shortly after the 2009 elections in Iran and the mass protests and arrests that followed, an Iranian woman yelled, "We'll torture you all just the way you tortured us! We'll kill you all!" She was angry because of all the terrible things that were done to her in Evin, and she didn't see that by torturing and killing, she would contribute to the same evil she was trying to defeat. To her, heroism has to do with killing and torturing the enemy. Her value system is distorted and has been overcome by hate, which has originated from her personal suffering when her dignity and survival were threatened.

Hannah Arendt wrote about Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, that even though his deeds were monstrous, he was quite ordinary. He was not stupid, but he was thoughtless, incapable of thinking independently or critically. Arendt believed that Eichmann was the embodiment of what she called the banality of evil, the capability of "normal" people to commit evil in certain circumstances. She wrote that, unlike popular belief, not all Nazis were psychopaths.

One human being intentionally harming another is an evil act. If we agree on this, we would soon have to answer some difficult questions. How about the many states in the U.S. that practice the death penalty? Are those who practice it, even when the law allows it, evil? - Marina Nemat

During his TEDTalk, titled Psychology of Evil, Philip Zimbardo, who is known for his Stanford Prison Study, in which 24 "normal," healthy individuals were randomly selected to be "prisoners" or "guards" in a mock dungeon located in a basement at Stanford University, fails to clearly define what evil is in practical terms. What kind of acts can be categorized as evil? This might seem obvious, but, in some cases, it is not. I believe, for example, that one human being intentionally harming another is an evil act. If we agree on this, we would soon have to answer some difficult questions. For example, how about the many states in the U.S. that practice the death penalty? Are those who practice it, even when the law allows it, evil? After all, they justify killing another human being. As Mr. Zimbardo says during his talk, saving the life of another is a heroic act. He gives us the example of the New York subway hero, Wesley Autrey, who jumped in front of a moving train to save a total stranger as many bystanders froze and watched. But if we allow our laws to, under any circumstances, deem the deliberate act of taking another person's life right and just, then we contradict ourselves. Mr. Zimbardo suggests that in order to counter evil, we need to have heroism classes for kids in schools. But how can we train more Wesley Autreys who jump in front of moving trains to save another person if, in the real world, the person we risk our lives to save could be condemned to death sometime in the future according to our own laws because of a crime they might have committed?

If we allow violent acts like torture and murder under any circumstances, in all practicality, we feed evil and empower it. Punishment, national security, protecting God or country, etc. can never be used as reasons to justify violence. If we justify violence in the name of good, no heroism class can ever save us from the hell we will gradually sink into. Before heroism, we need to teach our children the difference between right and wrong and the meaning of good and evil. We need to not only tell them, but also to show them with the way we live our lives and write our laws that harming other human beings can never be justified. Without this solid foundation, our talks and lectures become soulless propaganda. Evil is not simple and does not fit in a box; it manifests itself in many shapes and forms, from the victim who becomes a torturer, the Nazi who follows orders, and the psychopath who kills without remorse, to the bystander who remains silent in the face of terrible injustice. Heroism classes sound like a bad reality show; they will sell, but they will not make the world a better place. Let's start with less glamorous but much more practical anti-bullying, how-to-be-compassionate classes. Small sacrifices pave the way for big ones.

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