Sunday, May 8, 2011

Vanquishing Evil

What's so evil about Osama bin Laden?

Lots, according to the vast majority of the world's English-language commentators. Maureen Dowd lays out the charge in a remarkably puerile (yes, even for her) edition of her New York Times column, entitled Killing Evil Doesn't Make Us Evil, wherein she describes bin Laden as "a mass murderer who bragged about incinerating thousands of Americans and planned to kill countless more".

The logic is hard to argue with. Killing thousands of people is a very nasty thing to do. I would go so far as to say that even killing one person is an act that ought to be assiduously avoided. Whatever doubts there may be about bin Laden's specific crimes, he unambiguously supported the use of violence in order to achieve political goals, and I do not need any great convincing of the immorality of that stance.

So, granting Dowd's (and pretty much every other mainstream American commentator's) premise than Osama bin Laden is evil, let's consider the second half of her title's assertion, that killing evil "doesn't make us evil."

In the interest of round numbers, assume that bin Laden bore responsibility for roughly 3,000 deaths. No one alleges that he killed those victims (or anyone else) by his own hand, but the consensus view seems to be that he set the fatal plan in motion, approved of it afterwards, and at the very least wished for similar acts to occur in the future.

So, rather than running about knifing every toddler in sight as is so often
implied, the man directed an organization that ended lives at his commands. Despite the vague assumptions that permeate most coverage of anti-American violence, bin Laden justified his acts in ideological and moral terms: Like Dowd, he believed that the lives ended in furtherance of his goals were at the very worst an unavoidable sacrifice in a struggle against a very dangerous, very powerful, very evil foe.

By this standard, Osama bin Laden is hardly unique as "one of the most certifiably evil figures of our time," to use Dowd's words. He's certainly a nasty fellow, but with a bit of imagination I can think of a few other people that meet the above criteria for Official Evilness.

Consider this charming exchange that took place during the last Democratic golden age:
Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price--we think the price is worth it.

--60 Minutes (5/12/96)

As much as it pains me to say this, Albright is not insane, at least not in the way the term is usually used. While she clearly acknowledges her complicity in this staggeringly massive infanticide, it's not as if she herself thrust a knife into each little body. She is simply acknowledging that this massive mountain of mangled child corpses was the inevitable, maybe regrettable result of what she believes to be a defensible foreign policy.

Like bin Laden, this revered former government official has admitted her complicity in acts that resulted in massive civilian deaths. Like bin Laden, she has attempted to justify these acts and has shown nothing vaguely resembling remorse for them.

Does this make her evil? Well, her body count is certainly higher.

No comments:

Post a Comment