Virtue, I think, consists of whatever is healthy for everybody concerned, pretty much as Jeremy Bentham tried to explain. More often than not it may be appreciated for improving one’s chances of survival, and of course it brings into play Aristotle’s Golden Mean--moderation as much as possible, even in one’s commitment to moderation. But the question remains, what of evil as virtue’s supposed antithesis? This somewhat archaic Manichaean distinction turns out to be of crucial importance to President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and others of their White House entourage, so we are now confronted--all of us, it seems--with the hoary question how evil might be defined? I would argue that, if evil does in fact exist (which might not be the case), all evil acts, as opposed to merely “bad” acts, belong to at least one of three basic categories:
Erotic Monstrosity: the sadistic gratification that derives from inflicting torture and even death upon others.
Rapacious Monstrosity: the ruthless pursuit of gain for oneself, or family, or the cause one supports, and with total indifference to the pain and ruination brought on others.
Righteous Monstrosity: the zeal to destroy others who provoke one’s moral disapproval. One actually resorts to evil behavior in combating perceived evil, and this in itself turns out to provide excessive gratification.
These three categories reflect Freud’s useful trichotomy among the id, ego, and superego. And, as Freud would insist, they are relevant to both individual and group behavior, in the second and third instances involving entire nations as well as smaller and more limited circles of people.
Almost inevitably evil entails acts of extraordinary violence. The first category is obvious and applies to perpetrators of such crimes as rape-homicide. The second category applies to aggressors who are able and willing to destroy anyone who gets in their way or whose destruction is somehow directly or indirectly beneficial to their cause. And the third applies to those who are so dedicated to supposedly high moral principles that they take righteous satisfaction in the destruction of anybody who defies these principles. Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden, Irish terrorists, Sri Lanka terrorists, Balkan mass murderers, and Hutu hatchet killers all fit this description. Patriotic triumphalists who rejoice in victorious U.S. wars abroad against insufficiently respectful non-western nations also fit this description, though of course on a relatively modest scale.
Believe it or not, Hitler best illustrates this third category, of righteous monstrosity. He also fits category 2 (rapacious monstrosity), since he was almost exclusively concerned with the benefits to Germans when he launched World War II. However, his most despicable crimes put him in category 3, since it was his warped moral righteousness that led to his “final solution” in eradicating Europe’s Jewish population. What was his motivation? Contemporary holocaust literature circumvents the issue by treating Hitler’s anti-Semitism as a kind of motiveless malignity. Studies published during the thirties, e.g., F.R. Benenfeld’s The Germans and the Jews (Ungar, 1939), shed light on Hitler’s feelings and intentions, but more useful yet are Hitler’s texts, Mein Kampf and Hitler’s Table Talk (Enigma Books, 2000)--the latter an amazing record of twisted political sophistication. What becomes plain is Hitler’s misguided confidence in his role as Germany’s savior--and therefore Europe’s as well--in the grand cosmic struggle against Jews and communists as well as labor unions, decadent art, and other transgressions against Teutonic decency. Hitler was convinced he was Germany’s most virtuous citizen, a courageous soldier who had won the Iron Cross once during World War I and perhaps should have a second time. He was also a teetotaler, a vegetarian, a lover of dogs and the opera, a book collector (with supposedly 15,000 volumes in his personal collection by 1935), a competent artist (better than Churchill and Eisenhower), and a sensitive soul who blanched at the sight of blood. His sex life was hardly sadistic, since he seems to have been able to consummate sex only when kicked by a female companion while he groveled at her feet. As an orator he inspired audiences with righteous enthusiasm verging on collective insanity; as a negotiator he shouted wily foreign diplomats into cowed silence. All others had to bend to his will as the inspired guarantor of a better German future.
Why then Hitler’s psychotic anti-semitism? Because Hitler considered Jews, comprising something on the order of 2 percent of German’s total population, to be greedy troublemakers who had profited from Germany’s involvement in World War I, then engineered its defeat followed by the ruinous Versailles agreement. He shared the common suspicion that the Rothschilds had financed both sides of the war and that Jews both caused and profited from German’s 1921 and 1929 depressions as well as its 1925 hyper-inflation. And he was angered by Jewish leadership roles in labor unions and the communist movement, the latter most notably because of the failed 1919 Spartakist rebellion led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Only slightly less disturbing to him was Jewish ownership of banks, major newspapers, publishing houses and department stores as well as the disproportionate participation of Jews in the stock market, the legal and medical professions, the faculty of major universities, and the effective leadership of the Weimar Republic as exemplified by Walther Rathenau’s dominant role until his assassination in 1922. Not to omit the Jewish leadership in philosophy (Husserl, etc.), fiction (Zweig, etc.), music (Schoenberg, etc.), psychoanalysis (Freud, etc.), popular entertainment (Brecht, Weill, etc.), and even the scientific establishment (Bohr, Einstein, etc.). Everywhere Jews were doing well, and the rest of Germany was not--or so it seemed to Hitler.
What was the basic source of these complaints? At the turn of the century Jewish exiles from Russian pogroms had doubled Germany’s indigenous Jewish population, and it seemed to Hitler and others of his persuasion that the two subpopulations in combination played a totally dominant role. This, Hitler felt, was totally unacceptable, and only he was in the position to redeem Aryan supremacy by eliminating Jews from Germany, indeed from all of Europe. If possible, he would deport them elsewhere, for example to Palestine, the U.S., or South America, but, when this ceased to be possible, he was willing to exterminate them in gas chambers, just as German troops had been gassed in the trenches during World War I. Hitler’s pursuit of this “final solution” became operational in 1941, when deportation was no longer feasible--and with horrific success, for even today all of Europe from Lisbon to Moscow lacks a Jewish sub-population large enough to play any kind of a cultural or political role comparable to before. One suspects Germany would be a more talented nation today if it had a sufficient Jewish population to help catalyze its potential.
Was Hitler evil? More than anybody else if in fact evil exists. In the end he destroyed tens of millions of people, both Jews and gentiles, and the overwhelming majority of his Jewish victims were ordinary people, most of whom sought assimilation in European society: teachers, musicians, small shopkeepers, workers, artisans, and mothers and children who were totally innocent of the transgressions Hitler wanted to eradicate. Moreover, most wealthy and prominent Jews had already bought their escape from Germany earlier in the decade. Those whom Hitler despised were therefore mostly gone, and those he destroyed did not fit his stereotypes to any appreciable extent. As a result, his uncompromising righteousness had no justification whatsoever and turned out to be a hideous crime against humanity. Today, few disagree with this assessment of Hitler’s status as modern history’s most evil public figure, but what is conveniently overlooked is that he was also at the top of the list as its most righteous person, since he took it upon himself to exterminate an entire culture that he considered to be evil. Evil he saw, or thought he saw--evil he became, illustrating category 3 that people obsessed with the issue of evil are only too capable of becoming evil once they take their obsession to the limit.
Also verging on evil were those who supported Hitler’s takeover strategy in Germany, including, among others, Henry Ford (whose photograph Hitler kept on the wall behind his desk), the DuPont family, much of the Readers Digest staff, the radio audience of Father Coughlin, and many German-American immigrant groups (see Georges Seldes, Facts and Fascism, In Fact press, 1943). Also supportive was the Vatican, as documented by John Cornwell in Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (Viking, 1999). According to Cornwell and the many sources he cites, the Vatican played an essential role in bringing Hitler to power during the early months of 1933. Without Vatican support, the Catholic Center Party led by Ludwig Kaas would not have encouraged its voters to join the National Socialist ranks by March, 1933, thereby giving Hitler a sufficient plurality for him to be catapulted into the role of Chancellor. Moreover, the Vatican also induced the Catholic Center Party to capitulate to Hitler’s demand for extraordinary powers in the following month, thus forcing most of the rest of the parties except communists and socialists to join ranks with the National Socialists in accepting Hitler’s status as a dictator. Five months later, in August, 1933, Hitler repaid the favor by accepting a Concordat with the Vatican that gave German Catholics a variety of special rights, especially in the field of education. The architect of this strategy, Cardinal Pacelli, who later became Pope as Pius XII, was prejudiced against Jews (see Cornwell, pp. 74-75, 139-40), but he also shared Hitler’s aversion to communism and had no idea of his full intentions or the catastrophic turn of events that would follow. It can also be maintained that Pacelli’s ties with Hitler came to an end as early as 1936, when Hitler dramatized his rejection of the Concordat by prosecuting and convicting a couple hundred Franciscan monks on the charge of sodomy (see Joseph McCabe’s The Papacy in Politics Today, Watts, 1937-rev. 1951, pp. 41-47). Nevertheless, Hitler’s potential threat was already plain by 1933, as was his rage against Jews, and the choice to help bring him to power partakes of evil at least to this extent.
Today, paradoxically, Israeli Jews have become victimizers with victims of their own, indifferent to the impact of their expansionistic policies on Palestinians, as explained by category 2, and, as explained by category 3, finding righteous satisfaction in the destruction of those who retaliate against these policies with random acts of violence. Prime Minister Sharon typifies unconstrained rapaciousness when he suggests the “transfer” (i.e., expulsion) of Palestinians in order to confiscate their lands. But if and when his thoughts drift to the destruction of Palestinian society because of their violent opposition, he is putting himself in category 3, especially in light of a kill ratio well more than 25-to-1 favorable to Israeli Jews. And sometimes the slaughter is horrific, for example in the 1982 massacre of as many as 2,000 Palestinians in camps under the command of Sharon at Sabra and Shatila. Sharon later won a defamation lawsuit against Time magazine for having blamed him for what happened, but there is no doubt that Israeli troops permitted Falangist killers to enter the camps, that Israeli spotters watched the massacre with telescopes from towers at the perimeter of the camps, and that they continued to guard this perimeter in order to prevent Palestinians from escaping while the slaughter took place. Israeli headquarters were located adjacent to Falangist headquarters which directed the operation. The entire episode is nothing to be proud of, and current profiles of Sharon either ignore or gloss over the specifics of what happened
The recent conflict in Israel has been more Sharon’s responsibility than Arafat’s. With Sharon’s election as Prime Minister in February, 2001, just weeks after Bush was inaugurated as U.S. president, peace negotiations with Palestinians in Taba, Egypt, automatically terminated, as Sharon had promised the electorate, and a steady escalation in violence followed beginning with air attacks on automobiles occupied by PLO officials. While Palestinians have depended on suicidal bombings against Jewish civilians (the only enemies they could reach), Sharon has been far more effective, razing entire communities and destroying much of the Palestinian infrastructure, thus making negotiations impossible and permitting the further expansion of settlements in Palestinian territory on the West Bank.
When he came to power, Sharon confided in a radio interview that he largely agreed with the goals of his predecessor, Barak, but that he felt he could obtain more concessions from the Palestinians through renewed hostilities. This was supposedly to be followed by a “road map” more favorable to Israeli settlers, but when it came time to implement this road map it was decided there was even more to be taken. Today the level of hostilities has been brought to such an extreme that many Israeli support total victory, even the transfer abroad of Palestinians who are still in the process of being dispossessed of their lands, houses, and olive groves, not to mention their lives. Just as happened during the prolonged struggle between settlers and Native Americans across the U.S. through the late nineteenth century, the actual kill ratio between Jews and Palestinians tells an entirely different story from the propaganda of Israeli victimization.
The Vietnam war represented more global mixture of evil rapaciousness and evil righteousness, a “freedom loving” war economy pitted against an emergent peasant population willing to endure totalitarianism in their effort to kick-start a relatively primitive industrial economy. Again there was ample evidence of a willingness to kill and destroy much of a population in the grand strategy to defeat the supposedly evil forces of communism in every corner of the earth. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (a devout Christian, anti-communist and Nazi sympathizer during the 1930s) refrained from signing the 1954 Geneva Accords between French occupiers of Vietnam and the Viet Cong leadership under Ho Chi Minh, who had led the struggle against Japanese occupiers during World II. Dulles’s excuse was that the U.S. had no interest whatsoever in the Vietnam conflict, so it was unnecessary to participate in peace negotiations. Then, having bypassed diplomatic involvement, he rekindled conflict by imposing in the “free” portion of Vietnam (the southern half) a U.S. client government led by Ngo Dinh Diem, a Vietnamese refugee on the faculty of Michigan State University. With U.S. support, Diem thereupon jettisoned a plebiscite election in 1956 as required by the Geneva Accords for determining whether to maintain its independence or join with North Vietnam under a communist government led by Ho Chi Minh. The reason Diem avoided doing this was because, as remarked by President Eisenhower, it seemed obvious that the communists would win by an overwhelming margin if such an election took place, largely because of Ho Chi Minh’s enormous popularity. Soon everything escalated into a major war in which as many as three million people were killed until the communists finally prevailed after the “decent interval” requested by Kissinger. 58,000 Americans also died, so the overall death ratio (inclusive of the kill ratio) may be estimated to have been something on the order of 50-1. And what do you suppose? No dominoes fell as repeatedly predicted by the most strident U.S. apologists.
“S-s-sometimes I-I-I th-think we were on th-the wrrrong side,” an ex-student of mine once explained to me over a couple of beers. He had been an interrogator in the Phoenix Program, having spent most of his tour of duty in Vietnam directing the torture of Vietnamese peasants for about three days apiece, after which his Vietnamese assistants would take out the prisoner and mercifully put a bullet in his head. Then the team would spend a couple of hours cleaning up the hut’s interior before the next prisoner was brought in. Less horrifying, perhaps, was another first-person account I heard, of a former helicopter pilot who gave himself and the troops he was ferrying extra protection by directing excessive machine gun fire on a quiet but potentially hostile village before landing on an adjacent field. The first thing he observed on the ground was a small child nearby who was hysterically screaming over the dead bodies of both his parents, who had been killed just couple of minutes earlier by helicopter gunfire. It turned out the village was “friendly” and did not need to be attacked, so these deaths were totally unnecessary. Of course this pilot was “doing his job,” “war was war,” and his orders were from above, so the principle of evil might not have seemed to apply. However, something very terrible happened, and he can be expected to spend the rest of his life worried about his role in the chain of command that made his performance acceptable but so very wrong.
Rapacious evil seems to have been primarily involved with the U.S. strategy during the early eighties of keeping Iran and Iraq in perpetual warfare in order to diminish their potential military threat to both Israel and the gulf states inclusive of Saudi Arabia. Today, everybody decries Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iranians and separatist Iraqi Kurds at the time, but few seem concerned that the United States and its allies exported many of these weapons to Iraq by the United States and others for this purpose. Nor is sufficient weight given to the presence in Iraq of approximately sixty U.S. military advisors when these weapons were put to use [see New York Times, Aug 18, 2002, and Washington Post Weekly Edition, Jan. 6-12, 2003]. Chemical weapons had been avoided since World War I, so it seems quite likely that U.S. advisors taught Iraqi troops how to use them and took the opportunity to observe their effectiveness in battle. So who was more evil, Hussein for having resorted to the use of these weapons in order to protect his regime, or those who supplied them to keep the war going and very probably to observe their use under battle conditions?
Nor can one forget that Hussein’s initial experience in politics during the 1950s was as an unsuccessful CIA hit man, and that his rise to power toward the end of the seventies was undoubtedly assisted by the CIA. Our present Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, actually visited Iraq twice as President Reagan’s special envoy after Hussein deployed chemical weapons in order to assure him of U.S. support despite official U.S. government press announcements of indignation. Rumsfeld even went so far as to announce that Washington’s financial assistance to Iraq was to be doubled, hardly a gesture of outrage in response to Hussein’s use of these weapons. What compounds this hypocrisy is that the CIA was financing illegal guerrilla operations in Central America at the same time by making secret arms sales to Iran that kept it sufficiently equipped to maintain combat against the Iraqi on equal footing. In effect our government was providing weapons to both Iraq and Iran to perpetuate warfare between them, but also, at least in the case of Iran, in order to subsidize an illegal war it was conducting in Central America. That a couple million Iraqi, Iranians, and Nicaraguans were killed resulting from this Machiavellian strategy did not really seem to matter.
Today, our government and its well “imbedded” media pundits (tucked in and kissed good night) make an issue of Hussein’s evil practices in order to generate public support for our current occupation of Iraq. We are supposed to overlook how this occupation also serves to benefit, (a) oil profiteers, (b) Israel’s geopolitical strategy of neutralizing frontier Arab states while Sharon escalates the war against Palestinians, and (c) all the military contractors (Halliburton, Bechtel, Carlyle Group, etc.) whose enormous income derives from our nation’s pursuit of an aggressive foreign policy. The Iraq boondoggle was also useful to the Republican Party in fall, 2002, when it drove from the front pages of U.S. newspapers the recession and Wall Street greed stories regarding Enron, WorldCom, and a half dozen other corporations. This it accomplished, simply enough, by beating the drums for patriotic support, thereby giving Republican candidates the edge they needed to recover the Senate and enlarge their majority in the House of Representatives.
And how could all this be justified? By the rhetoric of evil supportive of one particular axis (the U.S., G.B., Israel, and the “coalition of the willing”) pitted against another, the latter a random assortment of terrorist operations as well as a couple “rogue” states having very little contact with each other. Unfortunately, however, this concocted geopolitical strategy is now reaping its consequences in a real and far more terrible conflict (call it a “crusade”) between Muslim extremists and U.S. triumphalists who are almost as fanatic in their misguided patriotic enthusiasm. Iraq has become the battlefield of choice, and American enthusiasts and their reluctant allies now join forces in conflict with unemployed Arab youth from throughout the region who are outraged by the invasion and willing to join the terrorist cause. The medieval clash between two civilizations, Muslim and Christian, thus seems to have been resurrected, and with such fury that it will take many decades to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Now Bush apologists try to justify the torture conducted by U.S. troops and intelligence officers at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq. They argue that it was little more than fraternity hazing by a few sadistic hillbillies, and that few were killed compared to the victims of Saddam Hussein. None of this is valid. First and foremost, torture was specifically condoned at every level of command up to and including the White House in order to ferret out the leadership of the Iraqi resistance movement [see New York Times, June 9, 2004--also May 17 and 18, and June 8, 2004--also Seymour Hersh, Chain of Command (HarperCollins, 2004), pp. 4-5.]. White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales is reported to have advised President Bush beforehand that there is a “reasonable case in law” that the intended level of torture is permitted under the War Crimes Act of 1996. Obviously, Gonzales could only have provided such advice if torture was under consideration by the White House, and his argument was flat wrong. The War Crimes Act specifies its subsumption to the Geneva Conventions, which preclude exactly the justification of torture offered by Gonzales and the legal staff of both the Pentagon and Justice Department. Contrary to their assurances, torture is indeed a war crime, and its definition extends to most of the interrogation practices recommended by Maj. General Geoffrey Miller based on his hands-on successes at Guantanamo Bay.
Administration apologists argue that only twenty or so Iraqi prisoners have died as a result of torture--relatively few compared to those killed under Hussein’s authority. True enough, but inhumane practices by Hussein do not justify their use by foreign invaders who attack and subjugate his nation supposedly to terminate these practices. Moreover, the whole purpose of torture by the U.S. military has been to gain quick access to information about the insurgency, and, if and when necessary, this has meant producing effects as close as possible to death short of letting it happen. The twenty or so who actually died can accordingly be dismissed as “failures” in this task, as compared to all the rest, who were tortured as much as needed short of being killed. Not surprisingly, sadism occurred typical of category 1, of course buttressed by category 2 ruthlessness justified by sufficient category 3 vindictive righteousness to sooth the ethical misgivings--if any--of troops assigned to interrogation centers. Maybe only twenty prisoners died, but hundreds--perhaps thousands more--were exposed to excessive pain levels as well as the possibility of being killed in the same manner, as they had already been told by their captors if nobody else. Photographs of dead bodies were actually circulated for this purpose.
Americans cannot be proud of this military “pragmatism”--especially following an illegal invasion justified by “cooked” intelligence solicited by Vice President Dick Cheney when he made his unprecedented daily trips between the White House and CIA headquarters preceding the invasion. Iraq’s continued possession of weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a myth, as disclosed by U.N. inspectors preceding the invasion, but also as early as 1995 by Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamel al-Majid, to U.S. intelligence. And no less mythical was the al Qaida connection except on the most tenuous basis, since Saddam Hussein, a secularist, and Osama bin Laden, a devout fundamentalist Muslim, avoided dealing with each other. Moreover, Iraq’s tank corps was half its size in 1991, and its air force was defunct. If anything, Iraq was chosen to be attacked, as Paul Wolfowitz is said to have recommended on a confidential basis, not because it posed a military threat, but precisely because it could be defeated without much trouble. It was ripe for the taking, and its inflated military posture to disguise its weakness could be used to justify its invasion. Afterwards, quite aside from its oil reserves second only to those of Saudi Arabia, it could be transformed into a democratic paradise to inspire surrounding nations mired in poverty and misguided hostility to Israel. Toward this pseudo-Utopian end, we have killed as between 10,000 and 40,000 Iraqi (the latter giving us a roughly 40-1 kill ratio advantage), though we cannot be certain exactly how many have died, since the Pentagon understandably refrains from tracking this statistic for the media. Reconstruction is promised to repair the damage we have produced, but as much as possible funded by Iraqi oil profits siphoned off to swell the net income of opportunistic U.S. corporations, many of which profited from outfitting the invasion in the first place. As to be expected, they primarily employ Americans and others recruited from abroad instead of Iraqi to carry out this task.
And what kind of a democracy can be expected? As yet unacknowledged by the U.S. press, Iraq’s first new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, a thuggish former CIA associate, is reported by an Australian newsman, Paul McGeough of Sidney Morning Herald, who based his story on the testimony of two independent witnesses, to have used a handgun to execute point blank six handcuffed and blindfolded prisoners just a day or two preceding his ascent to office. This spontaneous act of “justice” is very much in the tradition of Hussein--all the way back to the fifties--as if a brand-new Saddam Hussein has been dredged up who is able and willing to support U.S. interests. And it is no less evil of both the Bush administration and American media, led by Fox Network, to have kept the American public as ignorant as possible of what has been going on except for the inexhaustible Panglossian distortions of military talking heads and “Happy Iraq” and G.I. Joe “patriotic commitment” stories.
Right now Iraq is going to hell in a hand basket, and most of the American public doesn’t have the slightest idea. Supposedly the liberators of Iraq, our troops have kicked in front doors, beaten up fathers in front of their wives and children, blown up automobiles full of families trying to escape gunfire, forced into unemployment numerous former government employees (troops and police included), turned prisons into U.S. torture centers, reduced the medical system to a shell of its former efficiency, and converted a large population of supposedly grateful liberated victims into implacable enemies willing to die in their effort to kill Americans. We have radicalized Iraq in just a year and a half, providing a magnet for large numbers of others in the region who are outraged by Arab television coverage and willing to martyr themselves in an international Muslim campaign to combat U.S. oppression. Suddenly we are the Nazi storm troopers, and most of the rest of the world shares this assumption, as illustrated by the very tepid response (as cold as ice cubes) that President Bush received for his most recent U.N. speech--less than twenty seconds of lukewarm applause just a couple hours after there was a standing ovation in response to a speech by Kofi Annan, the U.N. Secretary General, when he declared his opposition to U.S. policies in Iraq. And we are actually indignant because others don’t accept the violence we inflict as the unfortunate byproduct of what seems a grand and noble struggle to promote universal freedom.
How did all this come about? At least partly because President Bush has invoked the Manichaean struggle against evil in his effort to justify the invasion of Iraq. As to be expected, his colossal mistake (in the words of John Kerry) has produced exactly the abomination it was intended to prevent, and it might eventually bring the destruction of something between fifty and a hundred thousand lraqi citizens, real people and their children who deserve to enjoy life just as much as anybody else. U.S. patriotic macho-triumphalists might find satisfaction in our unstoppable military juggernaut against non-Christian societies that do not sufficiently appreciate the gift of democracy we think we can provide. However, our present quagmire in Iraq contaminates our national reputation both at home and abroad, and no less effectively than Vietnam’s hideous nightmare thirty-five years ago. Once again we have become a nation to be feared, and Vietnam turns out to have been a precursor of future transgressions rather than a forgivable mistake to be chalked up to an earlier generation. Evil righteousness once again thrives, and it will take another couple decades or more to recover our self-respect as a nation.
Edward Jayne is a retired English professor with experience as a '60s activist. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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