Oct/Nov 2002 Salon

The Seven--Make That Six--Deadly Sins

by Paul Sampson

The tradition of whittling our religion to fit our moral size is not new. According to one ill-documented story, Moses came down from Sinai with his tablets and reported: "First, the good news. I got Him down to only Ten Commandments. The bad news is, adultery is still in there."

The tradition continues; that's what traditions do. I am surely not the only former Catholic to say I'd go back if the Church would only agree to a few simple reforms. For instance, Confession. Why can't it be made a bit more proactive? As it is, countless young Catholic men and women go to Confession on Saturday, the traditional time, to prepare themselves for Sunday Mass and Communion. They confess the previous week's sins, promise to try to do better, and say their penitential prayers. Out of the church they come, shriven and saved. Then they go out for their usual Saturday night activities, blowing away all the good they've done in Confession.

Well, what's wrong with confessing the sins you are likely to commit on Saturday night before you commit them? It's not that you won't be sorry you committed them. Oh, you'll be sorry, all right. Deeply, sincerely, and for a long time. So why shouldn't the Church just face facts and offer absolution in advance?

Before you dismiss this as too visionary to be accepted, consider the actions of our President the other day. (For the sake of future scholars, this is written in mid-September, 2002 CE. The President of the United States of America, George W. Bush, addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 12, one day after the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and on an airliner bound for an unknown target, presumably in Washington.)

There was our President, looking so manly in his little President suit, telling the United Nations and the world that he was about to commit the sin of invading a sovereign nation which had not attacked us. His stated reason: the target nation's leader is an evil man who intends to harm others. That man, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, must go, and George W. Bush is going to send him off. If the other nations choose, they may join in. Whether they wished to take up arms themselves, Bush asked them to pass a resolution approving this action. Next day, he covered his bets by asking Congress for the same advance approval.

He wanted pre-sin absolution, in other words.

It's hard to believe, from the way he talked, that he is prepared to feel sorry for his sin, a usual condition for absolution, as is the resolve to stop sinning as soon as you can manage to do so. But these are secret conditions of the soul, and I decline on esthetic grounds to inquire into the state of the President's soul.

Before we go on, let's all agree that Saddam Hussein is a venomous reptile, a blood-drenched tyrant, a baby-eating hyena, and has dozens of overdue library books. We all wish he'd go away. Nobody will miss him when he's gone.

But the trouble (or one of the troubles) is that so far his outrages have been perpetrated on his own people, not ours or our allies. Much as we'd like to do away with him, we lack the usual excuses for doing so. He may have prepared for many crimes against us, but he hasn't done them yet.

"Trust us," say the president and his surrogates. "We have information you cannot have, for reasons of State, and if you knew what we knew, you'd do the same as we intend to do."

To which I can only reply, with all due respect, "Ah, nuts." We are citizens. Secret governments do not have citizens. They have slaves.

We are also asked to concentrate on the demonstrable fact that Saddam has violated a dozen UN resolutions, mostly having to do with allowing inspections to see if he has produced weapons of mass destruction. (A correspondent in New Zealand suggests that the United States be inspected to see if we have developed any such weapons. This is cute but unhelpful.) We are worried about this because he might use these weapons against our client (pardon me, "ally") Israel, which has ignored even more UN resolutions than has Saddam, and has demonstrably already produced weapons of mass destruction, up to and including nuclear (or, in Bushspeak, "nukeyouler") bombs.

The President would very much like to be able to say that Saddam Hussein was in some way responsible for the devastation of 9/11/01, but so far there is not enough evidence to do so. Probably this is because Saddam, a control freak, wants nothing to do with wild men like Osama bin Laden and his gang. So at this writing, at least, Saddam has not been charged formally with those crimes, however much he may have rejoiced in our pain. One assumes that if there were even a plausible conjecture implicating him, it would have been the centerpiece of Bush's speech to the UN.

Lacking enough actual evidence to mount a war, Mr. Bush has instead decided to get us angry enough at Saddam to hate him. That shouldn't be hard; he's hateful enough. But a nasty little problem remains: Anger is not a legitimate reason to kill someone.

In fact, awkwardly enough, anger is a sin. It's one of the Seven Deadly Sins, in fact. (The others, in no particular order, are Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Gluttony, Envy and Sloth. How many did you remember? I thought so.) The President, a devout man by all accounts, can hardly approve of sin, but oddly he seems to make a great virtue of this one. Perhaps he thinks that it isn't so sinful if you have a good excuse. (That's not entirely wrong, of course. There are such things as mitigating circumstances, but it's all too easy to decide that our excuse is so good that it excuses the sin altogether.) Maybe we ought to just drop Anger from the list of Deadly Sins, like Moses tried to do with that small-minded commandment about Adultery. Six Deadly Sins ought to be enough for anyone.

The damnable thing about sin is that it feels so good. We will, as we always have, find a good excuse for doing it. We will call our anger "righteous," and then we will do it with all our might.

In fact, that's the dirty little secret about war, isn't it? It feels good to have an approved way to commit the deadly sin of anger, and all the sins that follow it, beginning with murder. The leaders bang the war drums, and off we go. And we will be armed with official approval from the United Nations, or lacking that, from the members of our Congress, who know that the midterm elections are only a few weeks away. We will be absolved in advance, just like our President.

But not by me. Sorry, Mr. President. "He was fixin' to hit me" is not a good enough excuse. Neither is "Somebody oughta kill that evil son of a bitch." There are people on Death Row in your native State who thought these were valid reasons to take up arms. They were wrong. So are you. So will we all be if we follow you into this war.


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