The face of evil

Posted: Dec 17, 2003 12:00 AM
In the face of Saddam Hussein, we glimpse the mystery of evil. Advent (for Catholics like me, a penitential season) is anyway the right time for trying to do so.

"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.

Ordinary people, people like me, commit and justify our lesser evils in the much same fashion. You could see the same mechanisms at work in the minds of the dwindling band of ordinary people who are Saddam loyalists. While most Iraqis celebrated, a few followed Saddam down the path of bending reason to sanction evil. The New York Times called it "eerily familiar" to "anybody who has studied totalitarian states like Stalin's Russia," i.e. "the seeming ability of people to dismiss reality by creating a virtual world that conforms to the dictates of the state."

"Sunnis or Shiites, we all love Saddam Hussein," proclaimed one 33-year-old store owner. Saddam was "cruel," he acknowledged, but only in defense of "security." Mass graves? A fiction created by the American-backed "looters and thugs."

If there is a silver lining in the acts of evil that human beings are capable of, it may be that by and large not even the blackest villain defends his evil openly. In the light of day, the dark soul strives to pretend to others (and to himself) that what he does is not really evil, that black is white, or maybe only light gray.

That, too, is our common humanity.