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Evil Is As Evil Does

Evil, like any other moral value, is subject to interpretation, and its interpretation can, if we're not careful, be the cause of misery and destruction on a global scale.


In 1943, my father dodged German artillery when he landed in Italy because a very charismatic man had convinced a small group of people that anyone who was non-Aryan was evil. According to this man, Jews were responsible for all the economic woes and moral decline that had beset Germany since the end of WWI. And although we are now a generation removed from WWII, many Germans still feel a collective guilt as a legacy of that conflict. They know firsthand what can happen when charisma and rhetoric exert a blinding force over an entire nation.

Evil is, perhaps, the most esoteric concept with which the human mind must grapple. We can live with the concepts of goodness and love because they are, well, good and loveable. But evil is more problematic. It's ugly, and we like to think it has nothing to do with us. It's so much easier to project it onto someone else. Everything is neat and clean; we know who the enemy is, and now can get back to daily life without having to think about it.

But evil, like any other moral value, is subject to interpretation, and its interpretation can, if we're not careful, be the cause of human misery and destruction on a global scale. It's a word we need to weigh carefully if we're going to elude the pitfalls of scapegoating and hate-mongering. If we're to avoid national actions that we may, in time, come to regret, we need to be aware of the mindset ot our national leaders. Words, written and spoken, are immensely powerful. Sometimes, even presidents can use words to feed into the paranoia of a nation, especially one that is beset with its own economic crisis.

I look at pictures of Afghan refugees in the newspaper, and try as I might, I fail to read evil in those faces. They are cold and starving and confused and full of despair. I hear radio commentators speak of thousands of children in Iraq who are starving to death because of economic sanctions, and I imagine myself holding my own child in my arms as he dies from starvation, or typhoid or cholera because there is no clean water to drink.

Unlike my some of my Quaker ancestors, I believe there are reasons and a time for "just" wars. Now might just be one of those times. Sometimes military action is the only recourse, but we know from our experience in the 20th century that it must be the last resort, when all else has failed. I tell people with pride that my older son is named after my husband's Uncle Jim, who piloted a B-24 and who was lost over the Ploesti Oil Fields during WWII. I never knew James Huston ­ he died years before I was born. But he was only 19 years old, and I have to wonder if he might not have wished that there had been another way.

If there's one thing we've learned from the last 200 years or so, it's that war really is hell. Before we pound countries into dust, before we send our young men and women to kill or be killed, maybe there are several things we should keep in mind. One of them is that it's not unpatriotic to question the motives and rhetoric of our elected leaders. I love this country intensely. There is no place else on earth that I've been ­ and I've been to quite a few places ­ that I would rather live. One of the things I love most is our right to criticize and question authority. Nothing else lends itself to an American identity and soul as does the basic right to weigh all our options, no matter who authors them. If we don't believe that's true, then what is there left that's worth fighting for?

We also need to ask ourselves, frequently and honestly, the following question: Are our actions prompted by an interest in global welfare and security, or are they fostered by revenge?

I'm not naive enought to think that we can lay down arms and the rest of the world will come to love us, or that it's not necessary to maintain a national defense. But while we go about the business of defending ourselves, isn't there a way to start a process that includes the economic and cultural needs of the very poor, those who feel so desperate and powerless that they fight against unseen enemies by any means possible?

There is a very fine line between the oppressed and the oppressor. If we ignore the poverty of those we've been advised to regard as evil, if we discount their humanity because it's the popular or patriotic thing to do, then we will have turned our own idealism against ourselves, and we will be in peril of losing our national soul. We need to remind ouselves that our children and their children will have to live with the decisions we make right now. If we face the times with both courage and compassion, they can be, in the words of Churchill, our finest hour. *

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