This is Memphis Flyer issue number 666 -- the number of the Beast -- a numeral seen by some as having inherently evil properties. We don't really buy into it, but several months back during an editorial brainstorming session we had jokingly tossed around the idea of making number 666 an "evil" issue. The idea lost its momentum after September 11th. Somehow evil wasn't as funny anymore. Evil was real.
Or was it? We decided to interview three people -- Nina Katz, John Lewis, and Robert Hutton -- who've encountered the worst the world has to offer and ask them about their thoughts on evil. What each has to say is provocative, challenging, and ultimately uplifting. Number 666 be damned. -- Bruce VanWyngarden
Holocaust survivor, activist
As a teenager during the Holocaust Nina Katz watched as Nazi soldiers seized her family and friends, sending them to concentration camps. Katz herself was sent to a labor camp and later to a concentration camp. Years of forced labor and starvation withered the 5'7" Katz down to 57 pounds. When the war ended and the camps were liberated Katz was tossed into a pile of corpses awaiting a mass grave because her pulse was too weak to be detected. Someone -- she never learned who -- found her and took her to a monastery hospital where she was nursed back to health. Eventually Nina and her husband Morris, who survived the concentration camp at Auschwitz, slipped 57 Jews out of Poland and into freedom in Czechoslavakia. In 1949 the couple emigrated to the United States. Since arriving in Memphis Nina has worked with a variety of nonprofit organizations and received awards and honorary degrees from dozens of groups and institutions, primarily for her work with literacy campaigns.
Flyer: What is "evil"?
Katz: I can tell you what evil is. I have seen the Nazis in action and I was a victim of the Holocaust and I was a slave. I have looked evil in the eye and it was like Mephisto took over the world and the world was silent. When I think of evil I think of a person who has no morals, no feeling, someone who is close to the Devil.
Where does evil come from?
That depends. In my case the Germans lost World War I and they needed a leader and Hitler promised them the world. He gave them the idea they could possess -- and be superior to -- others. But sometimes evil comes in a family setting, where children see abuse. When I work in the inner city, I talk with children who have never heard a kind word and nobody was there for them -- their mothers worked and they had no father. So it's no wonder that they join a gang, because it gives them something that belongs to them.
How do you recognize evil?
I have seen people who have the face of an angel and the soul of the Devil. You can't tell; you have to get to know the person. There's a European proverb: With relatives you have no choice but with friends you do. Life is too short to include people of evil. I would not associate with someone who is full of prejudice, hate, racism, and anti-Semitism. Why would I want to associate with a miserable creature who walks around and hates the world?
What made you the person you are today?
Determination and good advice. I really think that the home has such an influence. When children grow up in loving homes, they become responsible adults. [The Nazis] stripped us of every bit of humanity, so to be able to feel human again is a blessing. At times we prayed, "Deliver me," then later we prayed, "Take my soul and relieve my suffering." How many times would we wake up and the person that shared our bunk was cold next to us? We slept with the corpses. We looked like corpses. But even in that inhuman situation, if we saw someone who was worse off than us, we broke off a piece of our bread to give to her. That was our only nourishment for 24 hours, but we thought if we each put a piece of bread on her blanket, maybe it would give her a whole slice of bread and maybe she would live until tomorrow.
How can evil be eradicated?
We must stand together and not be afraid to look evil in the face. I saw the Devil at work. I have seen the killings, but I survived it and I have committed myself to making a better world. Democracy has a price. Freedom has a price. We must never be afraid to speak. Never be silent if you see injustice because that is exactly what happened in Germany. They didn't speak up and the wives did not question things. When a soldier is on occupation he sends home what the land produces -- wine from France, cheese from Switzerland. What did the Nazis send home? Gold wedding bands, gold teeth, personal belongings of those who went to the crematorium, to the ovens, to the gas chambers -- and nobody asked questions. You ask about evil? Yes, I saw it first-hand.
After the war everyone said, "We're innocent, we didn't know." Millions of people perished in a scientific war. When you think of the people sitting at that table, the best brains in that country, and what did they come up with? How to dispose of the bodies. The gas chambers and the evils. I lost my whole family. My grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins -- and my friends. I was given a second chance at life. When they found me in that pile of dead bodies and brought me to the hospital, I was given a second chance.
I don't have that many years left but I am committed to helping create a better world. I chose a life of service. I have a responsibility as a naturalized citizen. I found freedom here, and life here is the best that it can be. When I travel the world I see that everybody wants to come to America. Sometimes I wonder if Americans realize how lucky we are. But I guess you have to lose it in order to appreciate freedom. They took my father away. He died in Auschwitz, in the oven. And my grandfather would say, "If you don't remember anything else, remember that 'I am my brother's keeper' and 'Love thy neighbor.'" You can hate me, but I have to love you. Look at me now; after all that I went through, I have a lot to be grateful for. I'm now in my 70s.Whatever time I have I'm going to make the best of. The Talmud says if you can touch one human being you have changed the world, because you don't know what that one person can do for others.
-- Rebekah Gleaves
U. S. congressman, civil rights leader
Few people would be able to walk a mile in the shoes of John Lewis. From his humble beginnings in Troy, Alabama, to his struggles in the civil rights movement, and finally to his seat in the United States Congress, Lewis has never forgotten the words of his mother: "Be particular." He was particular about his leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement, particular about decisions made during eight terms as a Georgia representative, and he is particular in his thoughts about the evil that currently plagues the world.
What does "evil" mean to you?
Evil is not right, not fair, not just. It is inhumane; it is despicable. I've seen the face of evil. I saw it in 1961, during the Freedom Rides in Montgomery, Alabama, when a group of us young people, black and white, tried to test a decision of the United States Supreme Court. We were met with a vicious and angry mob that literally beat us. If it hadn't been for a law enforcement person who stood and fired a gun into the air and said, "There will be no killing here today," I don't think I would be here. We were brutally beaten. I was left lying unconscious and bloody. One colleague of mine was beaten so badly he had to be hospitalized. He had a broken jaw, broken teeth.
That's evil. I saw it again on March 7, 1965, "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Alabama. And when you see it, you don't understand. To this day I don't understand how people could be so evil and so inhumane to treat another human being the way we were treated; how people could beat us and trample us with horses and then tear-gas us.
During the past few days I've gone to New York; I've gone to Ground Zero. I think I saw the results of evil. I broke down and cried. I never in my life have seen such massive destruction. When I first saw it I didn't think it was real and I kept saying to myself, "This is not real. This is not happening." I would go to bed at night and think it was a dream, and then when I saw it I knew it was real.
Where does evil come from?
I don't think anyone is born evil. I think we are taught by someone or by our environment. We're taught to dislike someone because of the color of their skin or because of their nationality or religion.
How can evil be eradicated, in regard to the events of September 11th?
I don't think we can eradicate evil by using the same tools, instruments, the same form of force that the people who engaged in the acts of September 11th did. I think we have to try a better way, to reach out to people. Most of the people who engaged in the acts are gone, but they had help and they taught other people, so it's part of a whole evil movement. We have to reach out, we have to try to negotiate. I don't think just dropping bombs and missiles is the answer. We've got to engage in dialogue. My own feeling is that we can't use the tools of evil to get rid of evil. Dr. [Martin Luther] King and Rev. [Ralph] Abernathy used to say that you have to "love the hell out of them," so in a sense we have to love the evil out of them. It's a very difficult thing for people not to be tempted to get even, but that's not the way to combat evil.
How do we begin teaching this new form of warfare: "loving the hell out of them"?
We've got to start with our children, with the very young. At the time they come into this world we have to teach nonviolence and love. We have to teach it in daycare, in nursery school, Head Start, elementary, high school, and college. We've got to teach it and encourage people to love one another and not to hate and not to hold ill feelings against others because of religion, the part of the country they come from, the color of their skin, or their nationality. We must have this idea that we all live in this house together. It's not just the American house, it's the world house. We're all one family. We cannot escape that.
You've fought evil most of your life. Do you ever feel that the fight is hopeless?
You can't throw in the towel. I feel I have an obligation, a mission, a calling to continue to bring about a more open, more just, more loving society. There is a role for us to play to help make our society a better place. It saddens me when people say, "I hate such and such a person or this group of people." I've been beaten, arrested 40 times; I almost died on the [Pettus] bridge. But I don't know a single soul that I hate or really dislike. I think hate is too heavy a burden to bear. We hold grudges against people and we should just let it go. And even nations against other nations, we just have to let it go.
Nations become like individuals who say, "I'm not a man if I don't get that person back." We don't want to be seen as weak if we don't bomb the hell out of them. Some people in Congress are saying that we have to bomb them out of existence, but that's not the answer. Dr. King once said that the bombs we dropped in Vietnam would one day reappear and they would be dropping on us. I think the problem we have is that we are poisoning the atmosphere of the children and grandchildren of the people that we are bombing and destroying. When they grow up, what will they think of their counterparts in America and the rest of the world? Somehow you have to stop the cycle of evil and violence. You have to break it and say, No more.
What did your parents instill in you that made you the person you are today?
My mother has a phrase that she uses: "Be particular." She's saying, Be careful, be mindful, and do good. I have never heard my mother say a negative word about anybody. She taught us kindness and how to love people. A. Phillip Randolph, one of the leaders of the movement, would say, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." And that stayed with me. I don't believe in name-calling. I think my parents taught me there's something special about everybody. It makes no difference what they do or how bad you think they are, there's something special. We are all made in the image of God. We should reach for that spark of goodness in them.
-- Janel Davis
To many people, Robert Glen Coe was the embodiment of evil. Executed in April 2000, Coe was convicted of raping and killing 8-year-old Cary Medlin. He kidnapped her while she was riding her bicycle in a West Tennessee church parking lot in 1979. Coe told authorities that when Medlin told him, "Jesus loves you," he got angry and choked her. He then sliced her throat with a pocket knife.
Robert Hutton represented Coe in the final stages of the case, arguing that Coe was not mentally competent and thus should not be executed. But Hutton lost his case and Coe became the first execution in Tennessee since 1960. Hutton, who also represents death-row inmate Philip Workman, was with him when he died.
Having known and represented numerous inmates on death row, including Robert Coe, what have your experiences been with these people, who some might consider evil?
There was a profound change in Robert Coe in the last year I knew him, in large part due to people like Father Bruce Nieli and Frank Bainbridge, a Catholic deacon in Nashville who visited Robert every week for 20 years. Robert had a profound change in the last six weeks of his life.
The real question you're asking is "Why do people do bad things?" That's really a theological question. It really gets down to core beliefs about spirituality and about right and wrong. My personal belief and my personal experience is people are innately good but through events in their life, or choices, can succumb to behavior that is not.
A classic example would be -- and I see this a lot -- people who start using drugs and become drug addicts. Once they're addicted, they start stealing or robbing to get money for the drugs. Then they're out of it and a robbery goes bad and they shoot and kill somebody. When they started using drugs they had no plans to go out and kill people. It's a classic example about how people's choices can suck them into a proclivity that starts them down the wrong path.
There are other issues, too, where people can have things that happen to them in the past -- such as Robert with his severe sexual abuse -- that cause certain deviances. You see that all the time. Generally abusers are kids who were abused.
But you don't believe the inmates themselves are evil?
When people want to go with me to death row, they think they're going to meet these evil people. A lot of [the prisoners] are very likable and very caring people. I'll give you an example: My secretary's mother has had some health issues. My clients will call and send her cards. They're very concerned. They're very thoughtful. Usually what happened is they got involved in some kind of behavior, some addiction -- whether it's drugs or some type of sexual addiction -- that led to behavior that they wouldn't do now.
If the question is "Do I think any of my clients are evil?" No, I don't. I don't believe people are evil. I have clients who are innocent. I also have clients who have done bad things. I think there is human choice, but I think that choice is often affected heavily by drugs, retardation, prior abuse, pornography, which often stem from social problems, such as extreme poverty.
I was very fortunate. I grew up in a wealthy, loving family that didn't use drugs, didn't beat me, gave me a good education, and sent me to Vanderbilt. I always wonder what if I had been raised in the ghetto by a drug-dealing mother who was on crack when I was born, so I had brain damage and I was beaten by Momma's 12 boyfriends and I got involved in a gang. Would I be the same person I am today?
That doesn't make the behavior right, but I think it offers an explanation. Not an excuse, but an explanation. It doesn't diminish the capacity of each and every person for good. Robert Coe was a very funny, witty person. He made me laugh. In fact, on the day he was being executed -- we were all totally emotionally upset -- he was cutting jokes, trying to make us happy.
Do you think evil exists in anyone?
I do acknowledge the existence of evil but I don't think human beings are evil. I think they choose evil. Just like if you choose something enough, it grows in you and it's harder to control. You hear these stories about the Nazis: The very first time they're told to kill somebody in the concentration camps, it's very difficult. After awhile it becomes easier, because it sort of inoculates people. I do also believe that people over time can choose evil to such an extent that their hearts become very hard.
From your experience, how do you think evil can be eradicated?
You've asked me a theological question. I come to this from a very strong Catholic perspective. That's the only way I can answer this question and that's why I do the work that I do.
Basically I believe that God is a loving God and creates us out of love. When Jesus says to love your neighbors as yourself, we are called as Catholic Christians to manifest that love. Because of original sin, we're all good, but we're somewhat broken.
That's the classic example of some of my clients who become drug addicts. Those early choices lead to more serious entanglements. But I believe all people are capable of redemption in terms of turning their lives around. Everyone responds to love. Everyone I have on death row, every criminal, they always respond to love. Robert Coe's an example of that. When people see they're lovable, that's when they respond.
Robert Coe responded to people like Frank Bainbridge. Every week he would go by and say, "Robert, do you want somebody to talk to? Is there anything I can do for you?" And Bruce Nieli, who would drive up from Memphis to Nashville to spend time with Robert to let him know that he's important. [Bruce] would check on his concerns, find his family members, help arrange for them to come and visit him. Up in Nashville there was a girl named Melanie that befriended him. That is what brings about change in people. -- Mary Cashiola