For a student of evil, Stephen Colbert’s exchange with Bill O’Reilly on “The Late Show” two days after the Orlando killings was an education. “This guy was evil,” O’Reilly said of the gunman, Omar Mateen.
Colbert immediately asked, “What is the proper response to evil?”
“Destroy it,” O’Reilly answered. “You don’t contain evil, because you can’t. You destroy evil. ISIS is evil, and Mateen is evil.”
O’Reilly’s attitude toward evil exemplifies the ethical justification for the most consequential American policy decisions of the past 15 years — and, if we consent, for those that will be made in reaction to the Orlando massacre and others like it. Recent history and philosophy have taught that violence is the surest outcome of blithely ascribing the quality of evil to another. At best, this process may supplant the thing we brand evil for a time, but the notion that evil can be “destroyed” is an ethical version of a fool’s errand.
We have ample evidence that our solutions to evil after Sept. 11 were unsuccessful. If the objective of our military intervention in the Middle East was to eradicate points on the axis of evil, our assertion of the continued presence of evil in the region points to a grand failure. What greater tool is at our disposal to destroy evil than the full power, skill and bravery of the military of the United States and its allies? If force alone were sufficient to destroy it, we already would have won the game of whack-a-mole we have been playing with evil for a decade and a half.
(Steven Paulikas in the New York Times) Don’t expect an answer, though, to the headline question, How Should We Respond to ‘Evil’? Paulikas is stronger on what does not “work” than on what does.
The line between good and evil is drawn not between nations and parties, but through every human heart.
(Dostoevsky. Or Solzhenitsyn. Your mileage may vary.)
“One picture, only one more, because it’s so curious, so characteristic, and I have only just read it in some collection of Russian antiquities. I’ve forgotten the name. I must look it up. It was in the darkest days of serfdom at the beginning of the century, and long live the Liberator of the People! There was in those days a general of aristocratic connections, the owner of great estates, one of those men—somewhat exceptional, I believe, even then—who, retiring from the service into a life of leisure, are convinced that they’ve earned absolute power over the lives of their subjects. There were such men then. So our general, settled on his property of two thousand souls, lives in pomp, and domineers over his poor neighbours as though they were dependents and buffoons. He has kennels of hundreds of hounds and nearly a hundred dog-boys—all mounted, and in uniform. One day a serf-boy, a little child of eight, threw a stone in play and hurt the paw of the general’s favourite hound. ‘Why is my favourite dog lame?’ He is told that the boy threw a stone that hurt the dog’s paw. ‘So you did it.’ The general looked the child up and down. ‘Take him.’ He was taken—taken from his mother and kept shut up all night. Early that morning the general comes out on horseback, with the hounds, his dependents, dog-boys, and huntsmen, all mounted around him in full hunting parade. The servants are summoned for their edification, and in front of them all stands the mother of the child. The child is brought from the lock-up. It’s a gloomy, cold, foggy, autumn day, a capital day for hunting. The general orders the child to be undressed; the child is stripped naked. He shivers, numb with terror, not daring to cry. . . ‘Make him run,’ commands the general. ‘Run! run!’ shout the dog-boys. The boy runs. . . ‘At him!’ yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds on the child. The hounds catch him, and tear him to pieces before his mother’s eyes!. . . I believe the general was afterwards declared incapable of administering his estates. Well—what did he deserve? To be shot? To be shot for the satisfaction of our moral feelings? Speak, Alyosha!”
“To be shot,” murmured Alyosha, lifting his eyes to Ivan with a pale, twisted smile.
“Bravo!” cried Ivan delighted. “If even you say so. . . You’re a pretty monk! So there is a little devil sitting in your heart, Alyosha Karamazov!”
(Definitely Dostoevsky) Q.E.D.
Memo to Pope Francis:
You can apologize and admonish others in the Roman Church to apologize to gays every day for the remainder of your papacy, but it won’t help, and will be invoked as a mark of hypocrisy, until you get rid of this:
The church teaches that gay tendencies are not sinful but that gay acts are, and that gays should try to be chaste.
If you can’t get rid of the caveat about gay acts and the call for chastity — and I don’t think you can— please stop the counterproductive apologies.
When I made that tendency/act distinction in debate with a gay activist years ago, he shot back “What do you think it means to be gay?!” as if I were an idiot. That interpretation of the equivocal word “gay” is probably commoner by an order or two of magnitude than the “tendency” interpretation.
So every word of affirmation you offer gays will be taken as affirmation of “gay acts” until you clarify that they aren’t, whereupon you’ll hear that your Church is still terrible, “even with Pope Francis in charge” as I recently read on Facebook. With a few exceptions, they’re not being dishonest. They cannot get out of the rut of identifying primarily by sexuality, nor can they imagine sex being optional (and they’re not alone by any means on that).
UPDATE: Immediate validation of my point.
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“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)