Washing in on what Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) might have called a “blood-dimmed tide,” the specter of true evil suddenly emerged from the periphery of modern life on one particular morning. Let’s face it, for most of us, before 9/11’s transmogrifying sucker punch the notion of “evil” had a rather Old World air about it.
As the smoke of 9/11 cleared a bitter lesson was being absorbed. Evil never went away. No. As a concept, it had merely gone out of style in some quarters because times had been so easy for so long. Absolutes had enjoyed no seat at the table of postmodern thinking.
Living in the land of plenty, it had gotten easy to avert our eyes from evil-doings in lands of want; especially doings connected to making life easier for us at someone else’s expense.
If that last sentence was a bummer, sorry, but the gasoline was relatively cheap for a long time, at least it was compared to the price in most other places. Speaking of style, little cars and bicycles may be making second comings soon.
The last American president to get much mileage out of the word evil, itself, had to be Ronald Reagan. His “evil empire” characterization of the USSR and its sphere of influence had punch. Two decades later we have a president who could see an “axis of evil” -- an alleged phenomenon that puzzled most of the world’s leaders, or so they said.
President George W. Bush apparently has had little use for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stalwart advice to a shaken nation then-needing a boost in confidence -- “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Rather than urge his people to rise above their fears, Bush has chosen to color-code it.
Moreover, the neoconservatives around Bush have been asking us to accept the architects of 9/11 as the most evil cats the world has ever seen. Like, Osama bin Laden has made Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin and Pol Pot look like amateurs.
Whether evil exists in some pure form, off in another dimension, is not my department. What’s known here is that in the real world evil is contagious. Lurking in well-appointed rooms or hiding in caves, evil remains as it ever was -- ready to spread, ready to use whatever grudges are in the air.
Then again, evil, like beauty, has always been in the eye of the beholder. Generally, Americans used to believe torture was beyond the pale. Now, we hear our government officials defending its proper use in prosecuting the so-called War on Terror.
So, to grasp today’s evil perhaps we need a context to measure it. OK, let‘s look around for some world class malfeasance.
In the 1970s wasn’t it rather evil to deliberately dump tons of potent pesticide into the James River to make a greedy buck? Yet, once they got caught, the Hopewell businessmen associated with Allied Chemical who did it only received slaps on their wrists. Once it was in Virginia’s water, it turned out Kepone wasn’t much different from a full-blown bio-terror agent in the same water.
With the news that has seeped out of the cloisters about child-molesting priests and the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-ups, whose betrayal was more evil, the molesters, themselves, or the higher-ups who hid and facilitated heinous crimes that we know full-well act as poison in our society?
Today’s evil is the same as our forefathers faced in their wars and in their neighborhoods. Evil hasn’t really changed, but technology has. With modern machines and chemicals in their hands the fanatics of the world have the potential to wreak havoc like never before. What’s changed is the extent to which the bloodlust of the world’s payback artists and would-be poobahs can be weaponized.
It’s worth noting the weapons that are scaring us the most now were developed during the anything-goes arms-race days of the Cold War by the game’s principal players.
So another question arises, who’s more dangerous to civilization in the long run the schmucks who spent their treasure to weaponize germs, or the schmucks who want to steal the same germs and do you know what? Decades ago this same scenario was worried over by some in the disarmament movement. Its scary list of what-ifs always included the likelihood that the so-called Super Powers would eventually lose track of a few of their exotic weapons.
Meanwhile, America is still very much a First World land. And, many Americans are still averting their eyes from righteous grievances in Third World lands.
Uh, oh. This just in -- the official fear color for air travel just got bumped up to red. So, for now, I’ll stick to my bicycle.
No doubt, the poet’s “rough beast” of a monster in the desert, “slouching towards Bethlehem,” is traveling on the back of technology of our own making. It probably feeds happily on the pollution we’re dumping into the environment.