Evil Personified

A friend of mine was almost lynched at work the other day. Apparently, there is a picture going around the internet of the smoking Twin Towers in which a plume of smoke happens to look like Satan. It seems my friend dared to suggest that this did not prove the direct involvement of the Prince of Darkness, thus he was ostracized for the rest of the day.

I’m sure there is nothing unique about this experience. In fact, I might be so bold as to suggest that blaming aggression against America on "pure evil" is a uniquely American quality. I claim no novelty to this assertion, of course, because foreign correspondents have commented on this phenomenon numerous times both in response to our recent tragedy and in the past.

The theory goes something like this: The world is full of differing viewpoints. Many people hate the United States for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are not our fault. Some of them are. Some people hate us for the good we do, and others hate us for the horrors that we commit. The point is that these feelings for or against the United States produce political movements around those ideas, and may lead to a spectrum of actions from flag burning to horrendous acts of terrorism. When things like the Trade Center bombing occur, they are born out of one of these political movements. The United States is not unique in producing these feelings, although being an international bully certainly helps to intensify such feelings.

What is unique about Americans, apparently, is our propensity to simplify these movements down to solitary individuals. According to this peculiar American theory, all people are wanna-be Americans. Some just happen to have evil leaders (an experience allegedly unknown to Americans) and it is the duty of the United States government to liberate such people from their leaders with some carpet bombing or whatever solution proves easiest. These men who produce evil without any help from any other people are the embodiment of evil in this world, and it is the blessed and infallible United States’ job to weed out these walking personages of evil and stamp them out.

One does not need to look far to find some supporting evidence for this thesis. The comparisons of Saddam Hussein to Hitler were abundant during the Gulf War, and when Clinton decided to use Slobodan Milosevich to distract from his Lewinsky woes, the mainstream press ran articles on Milosevich as "the new face of evil." Osama Bin Laden (our latest manifestation of pure evil) does not function in a vacuum. He has help (and lots of it) from many different people in many different places.

As far as the state is concerned, the "evil man" explanation is a very useful reduction of reality. It gives the appearance of American military action as not only being divinely inspired, but as pitting the righteous masses against one solitary figure of evil. What could be more convenient? It always seems that perpetual peace is only one or two assassinations away, and if only Congress would give the President the power to murder anyone he wants, we would all be in fine shape. The, truth, though is far more complex than that. We are not facing simply one or two men that hate America in spite of everyone else absolutely loving us. There are very real movements out there driven by religion, politics, and ideology. It is not a matter of picking off the right people, but of changing the way we interact with the world in general. Some have asked why we should care what the world thinks of us. Last week’s events are a good reason why we should care, and while terrorism could theoretically be stamped out by creating a world-wide police state, such an option seems a little unseemly for a country that professes (less convincingly every year) to stand for liberty.

Eliminating the terrorist threat to the United States is not a matter of just assassinating the right people or bombing the right city. Nor is it as simple as calling upon the "forces of light" to expunge from the Earth the "forces of darkness." One option is as ludicrous as the other. The "political movement" theory is not an excuse for terrorism. It is only an explanation. However, if we are to be serious about ending the terrorist threat, we must use the explanation to our advantage. A real solution will lie in taking the United States down a different path from the one it currently treads and seeing that differences of opinion exist in this world and that if our government is really serious about protecting its citizens it will address that reality. Our first priority must be to protect the lives of Americans in America. We must seek out a permanent and rational solution. Perhaps some of the solution may include defensive and restrained military action. Military action designed to do little more than noisily and brutally show off our military might will most certainly not solve the problem, nor keep Americans safe from terrorism. Dismissing the problem as nothing other than a cosmic battle against evil can do little but scratch a few violent extremists on the surface while a worldwide movement of anti-Americanism continues to fester underneath.