What is the difference between evil acts and evil actors? An act is an action, an actor an agent. Does evil come from acts or from agency? Both, you might say. Evil acts are evil and evil humans do evil acts. Can evil humans do good acts? Can evil acts do good? How do we regard and treat evil acts and evil humans? This is the question. How you answer here tells your tale, tolls the bell of your morality.
Bush & his war team believe evil acts can do good-as in bombing and destroying enemies and cities and orchards. This is acknowledged necessary evil which is justified (made good) by a good end. That end is to destroy perpetrators of evil acts, to eliminate evil humans-the doers of past evil acts and the future source and danger of more evil acts. The idea is if we get the source, we’ll revenge and stop evil.
Recently we went after Saddam Hussein and Osama binLaden who served as incarnations of evil men. One was a brutal dictator the other a terrorist who sought to destroy our nation calling it ‘The Great Satan.’ They ran countries and networks that hated us and wished us evil. So we bombed them and killed their supporters and killed and burned and wounded thousands of innocent people. Their deaths and wounds were regarded as collateral damage or tragic mistakes or fog of war errors; they weren’t called evil acts because we did them meaning good. They were unfortunate sacrifices to our good action. Similarly our troops were the good agents of our necessarily evil acts in the service of our good ends. Their deaths and wounds and psychic trauma are called heroic, patriotic, noble. They are justified and ennobled by our good end-to eliminate evil.
The incarnations of evil in this case-Saddam and bin Laden-eluded our military prowess and continue to provoke and counsel evil. And if we do smoke them out of their holes-to use the President’s favorite hunting figure-it’s hard to imagine it will quell the evil feelings aroused by our ‘evil-destroying’ actions.
The sad truth is you can’t stop evil acts except by condemning them and refusing to do them yourself. The dreamers who think if Hitler had been killed all would be well are foolish. Hitler made his evils legal, he passed laws. World leaders like Churchill thought he was good until it was clear how bad he was. Many went along. If soldiers like the Israeli 30 refused to kill, fewer people would be dead. Nazi is now code for evil but it comes from acts. There are many genocides-American Indians for example. Those who execute racist policies do those evil acts even if they have been victims in a former time of those acts. It is acts that define evil, not humans. Humans can be evil or good by doing evil or good acts. Acts don’t have the human option. They are a better guide to good or evil.
Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush are both bent on destroying evil. They accuse each other of incarnating evil. They incarnate the weakness of a moral imagination that projects all bad onto an other and licenses murder. ‘The Satan’ in Hebrew means ‘The Accuser.’
DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org