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Finding Evil

May 15, 2001

Evil is 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 thumbnail meditations.

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, wasn’t 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 aren’t singled out for censure; just the opposite. They are honored, or at least left alone. American presidents aren’t 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, don’t raise the alarmed question: “How can any man’s conscience be so dead?” You won’t 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 don’t 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.

[Breaker quote: The puerile 
search for monsters]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 don’t think of themselves as saints, or as particularly better than other men. They are conscious of their own sins and their own capacity for evil.

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 power.

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. It’s 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.

Joseph Sobran

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Reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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