Apr/May 2004  •   Salon


by Tom Dooley

But then I sigh, and, with a piece of Scripture, Tell them that Gods bids us do good for evil: And thus I clothe my naked villainy With odd old ends stol'n forth of holy writ, And seems a saint, when most I play the devil. —Gloucester, Shakespeare's The Life and Death of Richard the Third

I've been preoccupied lately with the concept of villainy. Why not? In the current climate of terrorism and scandal, it's hard to avoid being drawn into the sort of good v. evil mindset the current Bush administration hopes will translate into another electoral victory in November. In previous Salon essays, I've done quite a bit of bitching about George W. Bush, right-wing fundamentalists, and what I perceive to be the shortcomings of the American public, and everything I said still stands, as far as I'm concerned. However, I do agree with Bush, the fundamentalists, and John Q. Public: evil and something akin to it are afoot in this world of ours.

First, the evil. It's almost impossible for my mind to fathom what mental gymnastics must have been necessary for the people who ordered and carried out the 9-11 and now 3-11 attacks to have convinced themselves their actions were justifiable, even the "right" thing to do. I find it hard to believe Osama Bin Ladin, the leaders of Hamas, or any of the other fine folks behind the large scale slaughter of innocents honestly think they are the good guys. And I want to say this to their apologists: don't give me any crap about there being no "innocents." A young girl on her way to school or eating an ice cream cone with her friends does not deserve to be ripped apart and left to bleed to death on a sidewalk. She didn't suppress your people or assassinate your leader. And I want to say, yes, I know your side has had your own little girls killed, your own tragic, undeserved losses, but there is a difference between killing by mistake, even killing out of carelessness, and setting out to kill people who have done you no wrong.

In America, where much of our understanding of the world is informed by movies and television—our modern day mythology—it's easy to think about life as a movie set (All the world's a stage...), and of people as actors playing parts. Any fan of Bravo's Inside the Actor's Studio will tell you the way to play a compelling villain is to first convince yourself the character you're playing believes he is the good guy. Part of this we see as sophistication. The old villains who laughed insanely at their evil deeds, who reveled in their wrongdoing, we see now as cartoonish. Two-dimensional. Mike Meyer's Dr. Evil.

Part of it is also relativism. We've learned there are two sides to every story. In typical western fashion, we've turned what should have been a way of broadening our understanding into yet another prescription for dividing things into opposites. Night and day, good and evil, my side and yours. But relativism injects a fatal flaw into western thinking, because it suggests while there are two sides to every "story," both sides, from the point of view of those who subscribe to them anyway, are right! Wrong, then, is gone. Evil is gone. We can have day but no night. Fundamentalist Christians are justified in feeling this way of thinking doesn't quite "work." It doesn't work because it can't be used to guide human behavior, either on a personal or societal level, to produce positive results. It further doesn't work because it fails to reflect reality in any meaningful way. It isn't logical.

We live in a world where there are people who commit evil acts, and by evil I mean acts deliberately harmful to those who have done nothing to deserve being harmed. But we also live in a world where almost unspeakable tragedies occur that are not evil. George Russell Weller, the elderly man who drove through a street fair in Santa Monica, killing ten and injuring 63 completely unsuspecting men, women and children, may have caused terrible harm to people who didn't deserve it, and he may have been guilty of senility, poor judgement, even gross negligence, but he probably wasn't evil. We presume he didn't wreak this havoc deliberately.

Based on the criteria of deliberately harming the innocent, it's remotely likely, I suppose, George W. Bush is an evil man. More likely, however, he is a well-intentioned one with incredibly poor judgement—one who happens to be the leader of the free world—taking advice from hundreds, even thousands of people, each of them more or less well-intentioned and possessing of better or worse judgement, some of them perhaps evil.

There are, I posit, greater and lesser degrees of evil. Forcing a man to take a machete and hack his wife and the mother of his children to death because she is Tutsi: very evil. Using a machete to hack your wife and the mother of your children to death because a mob is threatening to kill your children if you don't: markedly less, as in, not at all, evil. Invading a country under false pretenses without global support, an exit strategy, or a clear understanding of the situation, then accidentally bombing public markets and shooting journalists and allowing a security morass to develop that takes the lives of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis: unforgivable, maybe, but not evil.

George W. Bush and the current administration is our George Russell Weller. We elected him, put him at the wheel of a very large Buick LeSabre, and with a good ol' Texas "Yee-haw," sent him into traffic. It may have been gross negligence on our part as American citizens to do it, but most of the people who elected Bush and who even now continue to support him are the farthest thing from evil. Just the opposite. They mean well. They think of themselves as the good guys, the way all well-rounded characters, heroes and villains alike, are trained to do in these days of relativist enlightenment.

I'd like to end there, but looking back over what I've written, I haven't really resolved the issues I raised at the start. It seems this train, or I should say, these trains, of thought I'm pursuing do not easily compliment each other.

On the one hand, I simply cannot abide terrorists. I do believe they are evil. They deserve to be expunged from the planet, not out of malice, per se, but because there is no place in a civilized world for inhumane, incorrigible, murdering criminals. I just don't buy the leadership of Al Qaeda or Moqtada Sadr or any these other thugs actually believe they are "good." They know damned well (and I don't use the word "damned" lightly) their actions are morally wrong, that they are abhorrent to even a liberal interpretation of any of the world's major religions, that they are despicable cowards motivated by greed, vengeance, and lust for power.

On the other hand, just because I find terrorists to be evil, that doesn't mean I think the Bush administration, the US government, or the western world is necessarily good by default. Nor do I think Bush, the US, or the west is necessarily evil, either. We, meaning all of the above, may have good intentions. We may not set out to deliberately commit evil acts. But with our great power and our good intentions comes great responsibility, thereby requiring good judgement. This judgement hasn't been forthcoming from our leaders for a very long time, but as George Carlin is fond of pointing out, our leaders come from us, and we elect them. It's time for better judgement from the American people—or at least, from those who aren't so blinded by the battle against evil that they can still exercise good judgement—because besides the very real evil of terrorism in the world today, poor judgement—to the point of gross negligence—is the something akin to evil we must first remedy.


Read Stanley Jenkins' response to this article.