Overview

Evil is a reality, not in the shape of supernatural beasts, but in the shape of humans. A day may come when that's no longer true, but until then, we sometimes have to fight for what matters.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I hate to say it, but there are still monsters in the world.

They’re not the supernatural beasts that myth and imagination have populated the night with. They aren’t ghouls who want to devour our flesh. They don’t have fangs or talons by which to identify them.

The real monsters take human shape. If you pass them on the street, they don’t look any different from everyone else. They wear nice suits. They look you in the eye, smile and shake your hand.

They’ll even tell you, with honeyed words and eloquent arguments, why they do what they do. They’ll invoke heritage and tradition, religious faith, patriotism and glory, peace, freedom, and other fine, upstanding motives. In the name of lofty principles, they sanctify the worst evils.

The roll call of monsters

We could write many names on the roll call of monsters, but in the last few days, one has shot to the top of the list. Like the rest of the world, I’ve been watching Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with outrage and horror.

It’s vanishingly rare that one side in a conflict has a monopoly on righteousness, but this one comes close: a brutal autocrat waging a war of conquest against a democratic neighbor. Putin believes that Ukraine is rightfully part of Russia, and how the Ukrainian people feel about it is irrelevant to him.

At the same time, I’m inspired by the fierce courage of the Ukrainian people, who’ve fended off Russia’s much bigger army far longer and more successfully than anyone expected they’d be able to. I can only hope I’d be able to muster that kind of bravery if it were my country under attack. President Volodymyr Zelensky is fighting along with them, turning down an American offer of evacuation with words that will go down in history: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

An opposition leader of the Ukrainian Parliament

Also, I have to praise the courage of the Russian people who are protesting the war, at grave risk to themselves. Putin is a monster, as are the henchmen who do his will. But the bravery of ordinary Russians is proof that he doesn’t speak for all the nation.

War: what is it good for?

I deplore war in all its guises. It’s a senseless, destructive waste. It always entails death and suffering of innocent people. Nonviolence is the better strategy by far. It’s caused many oppressive regimes to crumble, without nearly as much collateral damage.

Some monsters will never stop until they learn that aggression has consequences.

However, nonviolence has its limits. Specifically, it only works against an enemy who can be shamed. It’s a potent tactic in democracies, when you can hold the moral high ground and sway public opinion in your favor. But it doesn’t work against fascists, sociopaths, and other tyrants real and aspiring who treat pacifism as a sign of weakness. In their eyes, it’s an open invitation to take what they please.

Monsters like this will never stop until they learn that aggression has consequences. Sometimes, the only way to make a bully back down is to give him a bloody nose. What’s true in the schoolyard applies on the world stage as well.

To say it plainly: there are times when, to protect what matters, we have to take up arms. We have to use guns and missiles to defend democracy from those who would crush it. It kills me to admit this, but it’s true.

I don’t hate this conclusion because I deny the existence of evil in the world, as progressives are sometimes accused of. I hate it because, to fight monsters, you have to become a little monstrous yourself.

What humanism says about war

To seek to kill another human being—to point a gun at them and pull the trigger, to shoot holes in their body until they bleed to death—is an evil in itself. It’s impossible to do without dehumanizing them in your own mind. That’s a habit I wish no one had reason to develop. But sometimes, we have no choice but to commit lesser evils to prevent greater ones.

I say this in full awareness of how dangerous an idea it is—like radioactive material that has to be handled with gloves and tongs. Violence is seductive. When you’ve learned how to shut off your sense of empathy, it’s not as easy as flipping a switch to turn it back on. That’s why it ought to be an absolute last resort, reserved for when there’s truly no alternative.

The vast majority of wars throughout history haven’t met that standard. They were waged because of leaders’ greed, or hunger for power, or religious fanaticism, or any other of a number of unsavory reasons. Progressives were and are right to oppose them. However, we should take care not to overlearn the lesson. When one of those rare occasions of moral clarity presents itself, we shouldn’t hold ourselves apart.

To fight monsters, you have to become a little monstrous yourself.

I’m a humanist. As such, I believe that every human being is a source of immeasurable value. I want to believe that every person is good at heart, or at least redeemable. In an ideal world, we could always avoid conflict through peaceful persuasion and compromise.

But when the bombs are falling, we no longer have that luxury. We have a moral duty to defend innocent lives, and if the only way to do that is with force, so be it. Because Russia is a nuclear power, the NATO nations can’t intervene directly without risking an apocalyptic world war. But we should aid Ukraine in whatever indirect ways we can, such as by sending weapons for them to carry on the fight, or by sanctioning Russia so its warmongering oligarchs feel the pain of their choices. (Also, we should absolutely accelerate the shift to renewable energy, to choke off the lifeblood of Putin and all other petrostate kleptocrats.)

I dream of a day when war is a thing of the past: when nations let their arsenals rust in peace and plow their resources into making life better for everyone. The dividends of peace would make the whole world rich. Perhaps that day will dawn eventually, but it hasn’t arrived yet. In the meantime, in this world where monsters lurk, we occasionally have to take up the sword to defend what matters most. It’s still a necessity, although that doesn’t make it any less tragic.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...