Where to Look for Evil
April 18, 2002
President Bush has been widely praised for
speaking of an axis of evil. In speaking unapologetically of
evil, we are told, he has rejected the moral relativism to
which liberalism has inured us and has reminded us that there are indeed
The effusive compliments are a bit
overdone. It takes no moral insight to condemn your enemies as evil. To
take only one example, Franklin Roosevelt did it all the time; but he was
blind to evil in his friends, especially Joseph Stalin, and in himself.
That is the real test. Christians
dont just believe that evil is out there; they believe
its in every human heart, the result of Original Sin. They believe
that the first need of every human being is divine mercy and forgiveness;
our first duty is to repent, not to condemn: Forgive us our
trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. That is
not moral relativism, but the very opposite: humility.
How does this apply to war? May we
defend ourselves against our enemies? Most Christians have agreed that
we may, but we are also to pray for our enemies and respect limits.
Deliberately harming civilians, for example, is forbidden. Roosevelt not
only ignored this principle but set in motion the development of nuclear
weapons that would kill as many civilians as possible. And he is still
honored as a great president.
Americans, as a nation, dont
like to face the evil in themselves. Moral introspection is condemned as
breast-beating, self-flagellation, and even
anti-Americanism. And its true that critics of
America often sound like prigs, not fellow sinners subject to the same
temptations as the rest of us.
But to face the historic crimes of the
U.S. Government, often supported by the general population, is only to
acknowledge that we are all susceptible to sin and arrogance; and to do so
may help us avoid repeating those crimes the next time they tempt us.
Few wars pit angels
against devils. As a rule, young men on both sides fight because their
governments order them to fight. Of course each government insists that
the enemy is evil itself: in the Afghan war, we are assured, American
soldiers are patriots who are serving their
country and Afghan soldiers are terrorists. Perish
the thought that the Afghans see themselves as patriots defending their
country against invaders!
After World War II, the victors
the United States and the Soviet Union tried the losers for
war crimes and crimes against humanity,
gross violations of the rules of civilized warfare. This impartial judicial
process resulted in many executions, making examples of those who
committed atrocities under the cover of war.
Somehow, though, nobody on the
winning side was charged with a single war crime. To some observers it
seemed improbable that one side had kept its hands immaculate in a war
that claimed tens of millions of lives, including countless inhabitants of
German and Japanese cities who had been bombed to death. Skeptics drew
the lesson, not that war crimes should be avoided, but that you should
commit them only if you are sure your side is going to win.
Obviously, moral relativism is never
the problem in wartime. The usual problem is fanatical
self-righteousness, demonizing the enemy and justifying atrocities by
ones own side. In that atmosphere, any attempt to see the situation
with true moral objectivity to find sin, in some measure, on both
sides is apt to be denounced as treason.
A belief in moral absolutes should
always make us more, not less, critical of both sides in any conflict. This
doesnt mean that both sides are equally wrong; it means that since
we all fall short of moral perfection, even the side whose cause is truly
righteous may commit terrible acts of violence in defense of that cause
and, worse, may feel quite justified in committing them. That is
the difference between being righteous and being self-righteous.
Moral standards are absolute; but
human fidelity to them is always relative. The patriot who says,
My country, right or wrong! is often ridiculed, but at least
he admits that his country may be wrong. He is a far cry from the more
sinister sort of patriot who assumes that his countrys enemies are
necessarily evil. Loyalty to your country should never require you to lie