Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Evil

President Obama has invoked the presence of evil, or evil people, in the world as justification for armed intervention in Afghanistan. David Brooks, in his NY Times column today, spoke of Obama's point of view in this respect as "Christian realism", in contrast to liberals who deny the presence of evil in the world, seeing people, naively, as fundamentally good.
I believe the flaw in this line of reasoning is in reifying the idea of evil. There has always been a contradiction in the Christian idea of evil. On one hand, there is the Judeo-Christian idea of people as having been created in the image of God. On the other, is the idea that there are people who are to be killed, such as the Amalekites in the Jewish Bible. In the Jewish Bible, God himself is inclined to kill people who sin, such as the people of Sodom and Gommorah, or the people of Nineveh whom Jonah tries to save from God's wrath. The idea of sin got reified in the Christian idea of Satan, the devil, and the sinners who follow him. Satan, the fallen angel, becomes the prototype of the person, made in the image of God, who defies God's will and thus deserves to die, to be killed. The idea of Satan seems to me an awkward attempt to explain how it is that people are, on one hand, made in the image of God, and on the other hand, capable of great evil. Either God him/herself includes both good and bad/evil, or there is some transformation undergone by certain people that alienates them from God, from themselves in their pristine form in the image of God.
In my view, people are seen as evil when their murderousness or sadism is taken out of context. At the moment, the Taliban in Pakistan are perpetrating suicide bombing, the killing of innocent civilians, indiscriminately, evidently in the effort to intimidate people into submitting to their control. The Taliban seem like the ultimately ruthless, brutal, violent bullies, stopping at nothing in their intimidation tactics.
The picture becomes more complicated when one remembers that the Taliban arose in response to the brutality and violence of the warlords of Afghanistan who ran roughshod, killing, plundering, and raping, after the Russians left Afghanistan. The warlords, of course, had been financed, trained and empowered by the United States as proxies for the US war on communism. The warlords seemed to be on the side of the angels as long as the Russians were devils; even Osama Bin Laden was on the side of the angels as long as the US was obsessed with the communist threat. If the brutality of the warlords gave rise to the brutality of the Taliban which then joined forces with the US-empowered Al Qaeda leadership to create the current manifestation of "evil", what are we to conclude except that violence gives rise to violence, while good and evil are defined in relation to whose violence seems opposed to our interest, and whose violence appears to advance our interest. Those interests, of course, get defined in questionable ways as well. For example, our interest currently gets defined in relation to control of oil which we want to burn at the cost of the future of the planet and the impoverished people living at sea level who will be displaced.
This why Obama's war in Afghanistan, and its rationale in terms of "evil" is so misguided. Evil shows up as part of a violent process, and we have now set in motion the next phase of that process in Afghanistan. The question "When will they ever learn" is more relevant than ever, with someone seemingly as thoughtful as President Obama holding the reins of power.