In his State of the Union address, President Bush launched another salvo in the war against terrorism, not to mention his war against clarity. He declared Iran, Iraq and North Korea to be an “axis of evil,” which all civilized nations must recognize and resolutely eradicate. Ever since 9/11, Mr. Bush has used the words “evil” and “evildoer” liberally—and vaguely. Bush’s constitutional aversion both to precision and to nuance in speech leaves him free to clear away the distraction of complexity so that he can reach the most black-and-white possible distillation of the Big Picture.
His Manichean penchant says a lot about our president, not all of it bad. I must admit that his name-calling, however simplistic and repellant, gives me pause. A part of me concurs, seeing exactly what Bush means. He is right, up to a point. What definition of evil would exclude acts of mass murder and brutal repression inflicted on innocent civilians, as have been committed not only on American soil last fall, but by Iraq, Iran and North Korea on its own people?
But the world’s evil is a hologram, not a snapshot. The desire to see evil and good as simple black-and-white, while understandable, represents a profound failure in understanding. The problem is that apparently the president’s understanding of “evil” is grossly one-dimensional and fails to recognize much that is considered overtly evil by people who do not dwell in Bush’s rarefied, biblified world.
The fact is, evil is anything but straightforward; it is a parallax of the subtlest kind. One does not have to venture outside our borders to find definitions of evil that are at odds with the president’s. Protesters at the recent World Economic Forum in New York and recent World Trade Organization events in Seattle and Genoa believe they are fighting the greatest of evils. For them evil is a global economy that helps the rich at the expense of the poor. Their crusade against globalization’s ill effects is not unlike the battle cry of warriors in the Islamic jihad against the globalization of Americanization—what Benjamin Barber calls McWorld, America’s ever-expanding, insatiable sphere of influence. Yet despite obvious similarities, these two groups are by no means alike in their understanding of or approach to evil.
Bush deems “evil” that which he cannot grasp. This is human enough: we all have a tendency to associate evil with acts and individuals so unfathomably heinous—genocide, serial killers—that they defy comprehension. The epitome of the Other, ascribing “evil” is less a way of describing than of demonizing. Making a neat buzzword out of a morally charged concept, and attempting to base a necessarily relativistic foreign policy upon a shibboleth so absolute, is itself not merely misguided but morally wrong. Few Americans failed to appreciate this point when Ayatollah Khomeini called the United States the Great Satan a quarter century ago, a sentiment still echoed today on the streets of Tehran and Baghdad. “Extremist fervor” we call the pronouncements of the Khomeinis and bin Ladens of the world. To the degree that he employs such extremist, incendiary speech himself—enlisting the absolute in service of the relative—Bush cedes the moral and rhetorical high ground.
It is in no way condoning evil to acknowledge that everyone contains aspects of good and evil and that evil acts do not appear the same to everyone. There is an element of truth and healthy righteousness in Bush’s willingness to use the term evil in public forums; his desire to be plain-spoken is admirable and could be ameliorative to national and international dialogue about threats to freedom. But in this case, his desire to be clear-cut has the opposite effect: Bush loses credibility when his geopolitical rhetoric denouncing religious extremism is routinely tinged with a Bible-thumping term like “evildoer.”
On first blush, most Americans are appalled to learn that a significant proportion of ordinary Egyptians or Saudis sympathize with bin Laden, even if they abhor what happened on Sept. 11. Given the choice between America’s univocal pursuit of power by means of overwhelming force and a rebel who defies that power, they would side with the rebel. By and large we Americans do not see ourselves or our country as power-hungry. America’s goal is not world domination, but world peace; neither the most rapacious multinational mogul nor the most hawkish person in the Pentagon would disagree. Therein lies the paradox—and parallax: the very same set of facts and circumstances that leads America to pursue and to redouble its political and moral agenda simultaneously fuels the belief in many throughout the world that this country represents a voracious juggernaut of self-serving malice.
This is precisely where our president needs to be a leader, not another agitator; we need vision at the top, not tunnel vision. While Bush is right and courageous to call it as he sees it— “Mr. X and Country Y are enemies of freedom”—he overplays his hand by playing tit for tat with those whose words seek only to vilify and incite. Now more than ever, in the age of terror and Enron, plain talk is called for. But it is perilous and purblind to assume that we all speak the same language. Speech is a powerful weapon that ought to be wielded deftly and judiciously, or not at all.