Daniel Pearl's death - a lesson in evil

Posted: Feb 27, 2002 12:00 AM
Until a few weeks ago, Daniel Pearl was unknown except to loyal readers of The Wall Street Journal, family and friends. Since his kidnapping and death, Pearl has joined a long list of others who suddenly riveted our attention and who, in some cases, changed our lives. Like so many who've written about Pearl the past several days, I didn't know him. But I thought about him every day for a month or more. I lost sleep over him. I felt personal grief when his death was confirmed. I remain horrified by his final hour. Anyone who has followed Pearl's story knows his bio by now. To the words already delivered, I would add only this: Pearl was killed by evil. Not by people with legitimate political concerns; not by "folks" who are at cultural odds with the United States; not by disenfranchised victims of American imperialism. But by evil. If Pearl is not to have died in vain, then let us at least learn this much. Not that sensible people needed reminding after 9-11 that there is pure evil in the world. Yet how fearful some are of saying so. Every time George Bush utters the word "evil" or "evildoers" or the phrase "axis of evil," certain parties - I haven't been able to come up with a suitably insulting noun - respond with moral indignation. "Why, why, you can't call people 'evildoers,'" they clamor. "They're just different, that's all. They have legitimate concerns." Yeah, they're different, all right. They're evil and, if that's not enough, they're wrong. We'll be wrong, too, if we don't have enough confidence in what makes us right to respond appropriately to prevent the atrocities sure to continue. Given our clear ignorance of our own moral foundations - and our absurd pride in misplaced tolerance - we may deserve our enemies' contempt. We're like a nation of abused women. We can't stand the abuse, but on some sick level, we feel we deserve it. So we take another beating, cry our little eyes out, and, by our unwillingness to name Evil, invite another beating. As my unconfused teen-age son would say, "What's up with that?" Were we napping through history class, or had they stopped teaching Western civ by the time some talking heads got tapped for punditry? Because we don't seem to have a clue about what - in fact and in deed - makes us better. What gives us moral authority in the war against terrorism isn't the fact that we're bigger and stronger. Our authority comes from the fact that we protect and nurture freedom. In human history, that's a biggie. We have institutions and documents that guarantee our liberty. We have the right to complain about our government officials, whom we elect and have the power to impeach; we have a judiciary that ensures all men and women equal access to opportunity; freedom to practice whatever religion we like, even if it leans toward talking to snakes; to gather and speak openly as long as we hurt no one else. This you cannot say about the axis of evil or numerous other countries that slipped through Bush's speechwriters' net. The world that promotes hatred of America, that killed thousands on 9-11, that slit the throat of Daniel Pearl, offers no such freedom. Which is to say, we are not equals. The United States may not be perfect, but they're worse. Every time I read or hear another rant about how we're just as evil as our enemies, I want to say: Get thee to a (radical, fundamentalist, extremist) Muslim nation. You won't see a stampede of American women, I don't reckon. And no, before your knee knocks you unconscious, I'm not saying that all Muslims are evil, or even that all Muslim nations are equally deserving of our attention. As we've been told exhaustively, Islam is a peace-based way of life. Not all who profess to be Muslims are good Muslims; we've known a few Christians who didn't strictly follow Jesus' example, n'est-ce pas? But the truth is, the countries that make our watch list exist by totalitarian force, supported by laws that, among other things, reduce women to secondhand chattel. In my book, that's evil. Bluntly speaking, there's no room in this world for the sort of subhumans who butchered Pearl - and now would sell videos of his beheading for the viewing pleasure of the rising hate-America generation. By our failure to root out such evil, we not only condemn Pearl to an ignominious and meaningless end, we risk the same as we become complicit in evil ourselves. It's time to pick sides.