The slaughter of thousands of innocent people in the attacks on
the World Trade Center and the Pentagon gives rise to sharp emotions--numbness,
sorrow, horror, despair, fear, anger, revenge and hate. All these
feelings are understandable. Not all are noble.
In the wake of this atrocity, President George W. Bush is talking
war. He defined the enemy stalking our world as an "evil" force.
He characterized this war as "a monumental struggle of good versus
Rallying the nation against dark forces may accomplish the administration's
political objectives––putting a white hat on Bush while priming
public opinion for the counterattack, and death of more innocent
people, that is sure to follow. But pandering to people's fear of
evil does nothing to promote peace. Indeed, it stokes the worst
in human nature.
In Chicago after the attacks, a Muslim grade school was attacked
with a Molotov cocktail; "Kill the Arabs" graffiti was scrawled
along a major thoroughfare; more than 300 people waving American
flags marched on a mosque in suburban Bridgeview.
Yes, people throughout history have done immensely cruel things
to their fellow human beings. In some cases, the perpetrators are
innately bad seeds--evil, if you will. Yet that is all too simple.
Eighteenth-century Americans and English gave smallpox-infected
blankets to the Indians. Southern plantation owners traded captive
African slaves like animals. Upstanding citizens persecuted German-Americans
in World War I and Japanese-Americans in World War II. Members of
the U.S. military bombed the people of Vietnam back to the Stone
Age. This is not to mention the ongoing imposition by some Western
leaders of sanctions against Iraq that have cost perhaps a million
Were these historical actors all evil? Or were they, more often
than not, normal folks who employed rationalizations to deny the
humanity of people who were different, who were "the enemy," or
who were conveniently deemed less than human to bolster the power
of the established order?
One can also play the game of comparing crimes. The day after the
bombings, the New York Times' Clyde Haberman took the your-atrocity-is-bigger-than-mine
approach. He used the attacks on New York and Washington to justify
Israel's policy of targeted killings, asking "Do you get it now?"
to those who "damned Israel for taking admittedly harsh measures
to keep its citizens alive."
In a similar vein, other commentators, mostly on the left, have
explained, in some ways excused, the attacks as the understandable
reaction of people subjugated to years of persecution. All of these
relativist justifications are problematic. They deny the power of
human agency and thereby excuse the inexcusable––attacks on the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon by Islamic extremists or Israel's
state-sponsored assassinations. An action (or reaction) may be understandable--we
do get it--but that doesn't make it right.
It is no help at all for Bush to simplify the situation as a battle
between good and evil. Such a stance, though publicly palatable,
reduces things to such a degree that all subtlety and complexity
As Gary Younge observed in the Guardian of London: "Right
now America needs a statesman, but wants a cowboy. Bush must steel
himself to lead, not allow himself to follow." Alas, this president,
apparently incapable of speaking on his own, is not up to the task.
When Bush, puppet-like, repeatedly invokes the word "evil," his
peaceful intentions, indeed his competence, must be questioned.
Too often in modern history the inhuman "enemy" has been deemed
"evil" as a prelude to mass death. Such was the thinking, no doubt,
that went through the heads of the men who plotted the carnage visited
on New York and Washington. But for our elected leaders to respond
with the same kind of mindset can only make this tragic situation