"Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt its worth," as the carolers sing.
Except that most Americans (me included) are not much for dwelling on sin and error. One of the most charming facets of American culture is our deep presumption of ordinary decency. Most people, most of the time, are pretty good folk, no?
Oh, Americans do enjoy hurling thunderous moral denunciations occasionally, but mostly at people we don't actually know. People we know, we like to treat with civility and neighborliness. This expresses our faith in our "common humanity." And our common humanity is, in our instinctively optimistic American opinion, a very good thing. (This explains why "coming out" boosted the cultural and political standing of gay and lesbian people. And also why the absence of Christian fundamentalists in our newsrooms or cocktail parties makes them the only minority group one can still safely hate in public.)
When Americans are faced with something that violates our beloved presumption of decency, when naked evil stares us in the face, most of us instinctively respond by marginalizing it. We reach for words like "sick" to describe the person responsible. Look at Saddam Hussein. Look at the man who killed, tortured, maimed his own people by the hundreds of thousands. Look at a man who murdered several grandchildren and his "favorite" uncle. Saddam Hussein is not human; he is a "monster" or a "madman."
A totally separate sort of being, in other words, from folks like us.
To demonize human evil is to marginalize it. We psychologically contain the possibility that our common humanity includes the possibility of choosing evil as well as good.
How does a man commit or justify such atrocities? Members of the Iraqi governing council tried to pry an answer out of Saddam Hussein, according to the New York Post. Asked about the people celebrating his capture, Saddam replied, "Those are mobs." Mass graves? "Those are thieves." In Saddam's own eyes, he is a just, but firm, ruler.
The scale of the evil Saddam committed is, of course, radically different, but the mechanisms that permit it are disturbingly familiar: denial, rationalization, demonization of the victim.
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.