Apr/May 2004  •   Salon

RE: Villains!

by Stanley Jenkins

Evil. Yeah... that's a tough one. I scratch my head everyday. And keep coming back to it, rod and reel in hand—as if to a pool with a whole lot of fish.

On our mantlepiece we have what would amount to a family altar consisting of odd fetishistic objects, one of which is a button with a quote from William S. Burroughs that says, "The only unnatural act is one that can't be performed." I think about that a lot.

I'm not so certain terrorists can't see themselves as the good guys, or that it is always probable individuals—and especially large groups of individuals—will resist the urge to reduce. Because, after all, that's what fanaticism is in the end, I think, and probably where evil touches actual human beings: reductionism, the loss of irony, idolatry.

But it's all natural. I can imagine being a terrorist. I am very good at compartmentalizing my life. I could imagine getting to the point where you truly believe you are on the side of the angels when you plant bombs to rip the flesh of toddlers. Man, did you ever see Timothy McVeigh interviewed? When asked about the children killed at the Oklahoma Center bombing, he allowed how it could be difficult to understand, but he did not suggest for a moment his purpose did not take precedence. He believed he had justice on his side. Let the chips fall where they may.

I can imagine it. In the same way I can imagine making a cheap shot in an argument or saying something hurtful to someone I love (specifically because I can and want to hurt them), and I see it as my responsibility to resist the temptation (wouldn't it be easier though than all this ambiguity?), and I probably wouldn't be very good at being a terrorist. But I can still imagine it. It's all a continuum. And I'm mostly scared of people who claim they can't.

I half-imagine evil as a hungry ghost, a collapsing and panicked nothing, lying in wait to become something, to become concrete. It can infect nations, and it can infect individuals. Wild horses get spooked and rush willfully over cliffs. It lies in wait like a ravenous beast stalking the living—hungry to live—because that's precisely what it can't do. It is despair. What all the negative energy looks like when it finds a way to present itself as life, as living, as something you have to respond to. It is difficult for individuals to become wholly evil (most of us are pretty thick), but evil uses all of us, even in trivial ways. President George Walker Bush. Saddam Hussein. Hamas. Hezbollah. Israel. Me. Etc. There are of course degrees of evil—a leak is not a flood—but the task remains the same. And the task is to diminish.

That's how you can always tell. Evil wants to diminish.

Life on a significant level is about learning to respond to the hungry ghosts. And to renounce them. And to find replacements for them—because it matters when you create. The ghosts want to take away and reduce. It is more important to add. To be generative. To give of what has been given. And it is also about learning to dance when the rhythm isn't yours.