One of the most successful tactics that both sides have used in the "War on Terror" is the Manichean tactic: "Good vs. Evil." Our side is good, their side is evil. But what am I saying? This isn't unique to the "War on Terror." It's been a keystone in the way every country, every faction, every foot soldier has ever fought a war in the history of the world. I represent the side of good, and that's why I must defeat the opponent, who represents the side of evil…and if he wins, evil wins. That kind of framing is really a propaganda necessity: it turns war into a moral issue, and morals are damn hard to argue with.
There are also extremists on each side who take those things too far. The far-right wackos in America, for example, insists that not only are al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and Hamas and the Iranian Ayatollahs evil, but in fact, Islam is an inherently evil religion whose very existence is a threat to human goodness. Meantime, I had some far-left wackos telling me, less than a week after 9/11, that while the attack on the Pentagon was regrettable, "it did get rid of some truly evil people." Both of those extremes are scary — equally scary.
But damn it, the whole argument is a little scary in my book. I don't buy for a second that this thing is about Good vs. Evil, because I don't believe that dichotomy is real. We, the human race, love to pare things down to the lowest common denominator, the simplest possible terms, in order to understand them and our place in them. Some of us even like to attribute it to Satan, the supernatural force of pure evil who is having his way with the evil person and this with the person's victims. But all of that's TOO simple. It doesn't account for what the conflict really is, which is simply one compound of people and circumstances against an opposing compound of people and circumstances.
That's it. It's that vague, general, and complicated. There's no way to simplify it without lying to ourselves and each other.
Let's consider, for example, the person we like to consider the epitome of evil. Let's consider Hitler. Here's a man who seemingly came out of nowhere, took control of a tiny nativist faction and made it the most powerful political party in Germany. Svengali-like, he enchanted the whole of the country with his condemnation of Jews, Marxists, and the Western powers (the latter two, of course, being controlled by a sinister conspiracy of the former) and rose up to conquer Europe and engage in horrible, massive ethnic cleansing. A seemingly invincible monster, he survived a number of accidental and planned threats to his life, only succumbing to his own hand at the end.
The above mixes fact with myth, and is pretty close to the official version of events that we like to tell ourselves in the post-World War II world. But it's simply not right — not factually correct, and not morally correct — to tell the story that way. Hitler, for starters, didn't come out of nowhere. He was a product of his time and place (provincial Austria of the late 19th and early 20th centuries), of his upbringing (the son of a lazy, lower-middle-class civil servant who drank too much and beat his children daily), of his inherent and subsequent mental instability (some say there was syphilis involved in there somewhere), and of the current political situation (the destruction and brutal subjugation of both the Austrian and German empires after World War I).
We like to pretend, for example, that it was Hitler who brought virulent anti-Semitism to Europe. In fact, it was the other way around. Europe, and Germany and Austria in particular, had been foaming at the mouth for centuries in their distrust of the Jews, and outright hatred of them was by no means uncommon, if not quite mainstream. But with the too-harsh Treaty of Versailles and Germany's humiliation, the people were desperate for a scapegoat, and the Jews became a favorite with the silly "world banking conspiracy" charge. Two, the Nazi Party was an explicitly anti-Semitic faction ("a German community free of Jews" was a plank in their founding platform) before Hitler had ever even heard of it. What Hitler had that solidified their power was zeal, ambition, and above all charisma. Read my lips, folks: Germany didn't hate the Jews because Hitler was in power. Hitler was in power because Germany hated the Jews.
History, and the rest of us have good reason for teaching that Hitler was an inhuman monster. It's how we communicate that his actions were unspeakable and can't be allowed to happen again. But there's an unfortunate side effect of NOT teaching that Hitler was an ordinary (if complex) human being whose personality was nurtured by his circumstances: because we've learned that Hitler was a monster, we'll all be vigilantly looking out for a monster to stop while another ordinary (if complex) human being sneaks in under our noses and becomes the next Hitler.
Think you and I and everybody else DON'T have the potential to be the next Hitler? Think that you never, at some point in your life, were presented with a set of choices or possibilities that, had you done differently, might have taken you down a similar path? Kid yourself all you want.
The same is true of the other monsters in recent history. Stalin, Amin, Pol Pot, Hussein, bin Laden — they're all human beings whose perspective on the world has been cultivated by a set of circumstances that the rest of us only escaped by sheer luck. And none of our responses to them are simple, either: we congratulate ourselves over the perceived positives, and are so happy and confident about them that we overlook the negatives, which shape the personalities of our next opponent. Then that opponent comes along, and we still can't see the negatives or connect ourselves to them so we simply characterize that opponent as evil.
The "we" in the above paragraph is a very large "we," by the way. I'm talking about the human race and human civilizations. It's not a U.S.-centric thing. Although, because I'm from the U.S., I'm concerned about what we do without realizing it, too. It's the reason so many of us warn that the war in Iraq is simply breeding more terrorists: because our actions and their consequences are far more nuanced than we tend to appreciate–and the other side doesn't appreciate the nuances either, they just see death and destruction in our wake. Nobody in the world sees their own relativism: if we see ourselves as good and the other guy as evil, it's unfathomable that anybody else could see things differently.
I recently visited with an acquaintance of mine who's an independent filmmaker. He was talking about directors he admired, and mentioned that he had ONCE loved Clint Eastwood — until he saw Letters from Iwo Jima. The very idea that the film, which told the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese side, had made them seem like the good guys and America like the baddies? It made him sick. I pointed out to him that Eastwood's companion movie, The Flags of Our Fathers, had taken the opposite perspective (America good, Japanese bad), and that Eastwood's overarching point was that in war we always see ourselves as the ones fighting for the good moral cause and the other guy as fighting for the sake of evil — because that's how wars go.
My friend said allowed that that might indeed be the point — but that he didn't know. He hadn't seen The Flags of Our Fathers, nor did he intend to, because he'd been so offended by Letters from Iwo Jima. On the other hand, he did love the films of Mel Gibson, because Mel had such a steadfast vision of good and evil.
It's awfully convenient to be able to do that–to tune out the notion that "The Good Guys" is a relativity, and focus only on the simple absolutes. I wish I could. But alas, the simple absolutes don't exist. There is no such thing as a purely black and white issue. None. Nothing is simple. Nothing is good-or-evil, nothing is with-us-or-against-us, nothing is 100% anything. The world exists in fifty trillion shades of gray.
When we turn on our black-and-white filters and look at the world through them, Doom will walk in wearing gray from head to toe. As it always does.Powered by Sidelines