May 15, 2001
back. It has even made the cover of Newsweek magazine,
where it is given the face of Timothy McVeigh, in a photographic negative with the
word EVIL superimposed on it. Inside the magazine are several articles
asking how people become evil, with the inevitable quotation from the philosopher
Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil.
Evil seems to be particularly associated with
right-wing and reactionary causes.
Newsweek gives considerable space not only to McVeigh, but to
Hitler and the Nazis, with briefer mentions of Stalin, Pol Pot, and the Unabomber.
Satan, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Susan Smith, and Tony Soprano also provoke
The Deep Mystery Newsweek
tackles is how seemingly normal people like McVeigh can do such awful things. In
an interview with Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes, McVeigh wondered why
he was decorated for killing people in Iraq who had done him no harm. That,
according to our social norms, wasnt EVIL. It was heroism.
The same is true of American pilots who bomb
cities, as long as they do so in wars liberal opinion approves. The flying men who
destroyed Dresden, Tokyo, and Hiroshima arent singled out for censure; just
the opposite. They are honored, or at least left alone. American presidents
arent EVIL when they casually bomb foreign countries, leaving scenes every
bit as devastated as the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Doctors who perform thousands of abortions,
killing the innocent with their own hands, dont raise the alarmed question:
How can any mans conscience be so dead? You wont
see their faces on the covers of news magazines. Their killing meets liberal
approval, and they are more likely to be treated as victims than as evil-doers. In
fact the liberal media dont even describe abortion as killing.
According to liberal ideology, which
masquerades as etiquette, it would be reactionary and
therefore highly impolite to call an abortionist EVIL.
This politically skewed definition of
EVIL trivializes the real problem of evil. True evil resides in every human
will; we are all sinners. In most of us evil takes the form of little corruptions
taking bribes, fornicating, neglecting our duties because we lack
the audacity to do the kind of evil deeds that make headlines. McVeigh may differ
from most of us chiefly in having the courage of his convictions, however
misguidedly. Of all the deterrents to temptation, Mark Twain
observed, the surest is cowardice.
Christians are called to confront evil by
introspection. St. Paul called himself the chief of sinners
not because he did anything to rival the spectacular misdeeds of, say, the Emperor
Nero, but for a deeper reason. He judged himself not against other men in the light
of public opinion, but against the divine gaze into the recesses of his own heart.
The saints dont think of themselves as saints, or as particularly better
than other men. They are conscious of their own sins and their own capacity for
Nero merely had the earthly power to do with
impunity what many others might have done in his place. As Nietzsche put it:
How often I have laughed at these weaklings who think they are virtuous
because they have no claws! There may be purer evil in the will of a child
throwing a tantrum than in a bloody tyrant; but we can excuse or laugh at the
child, because his rage is harmless. Yet he might annihilate the earth if he had the
Those who believe that mankind is essentially
good always find themselves having to account for the real evil of the world. And
so, as the historian Herbert Butterfield observed, they generally wind up blaming a
few monsters Hitlers and Stalins, in whom badness is inexplicably
concentrated. Its far more realistic to suppose that these
monsters are simply the culminations of the sins of countless
lesser men who have enabled them to rise to positions of power.
Blaming monsters for everything, especially if
those monsters are our enemies, allows the rest of us to become morally
complacent, even fanatical, believing ourselves virtuous merely for opposing them.
We may then fail to see real evil in our own leaders and in ourselves.
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