Monday, December 12, 2005

Evil: David Brooks on Munich

David Brooks' editorial piece this Sunday on Steven Spielberg's new movie Munich is an interesting case study of the conflict between idealism and realism in amongst US conservatives.

Brooks, like most conservative pundits, likes to come off as a hard-headed fellow, not one to be put off the game by misty abstractions. But, on the other hand, he insists on using, and on other people using, a term which I'm betting he has no definition for: evil.

Spielberg's film is centered on the terrorist murder of 10 Israelis and one American at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and the reprisals that arose from it. Spielberg uses these events as a springboard to deal with larger issues like the Arab/Israeli conflict more generally, and perhaps all seemingly intractable human conflicts.

Brooks seems to think the film is well-done, but he has a major complaint with the world-view behind it. Brooks contends that by setting the film in 1972, Spielberg can avoid acknowledging and dealing with "evil," which for Brooks is embodied in radical Islamic groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

Setting aside the question of whether the 1972 terrorists are any more sympathetic than 2002 terrorists, one has to remark at how many conservative commentators today seem to hold up the acknowledgement of evil as the sine qua non of realistic discussion of practically any issue.

I find quite the opposite to be the case. "Evil" is generally used, like Brooks uses it, as an empty signifier which the reader may insert whatever he or she most fears in the context in which it is used. And generally speaking, whenever we hear someone going on about "evil" in a foreign or public policy debate, we are sure to hear all sorts of speculation, contrafact and pure fantasy from the same source.

Take our president for example: he starts off warning us of the (cue reverb) "Axis of Evil," and soon enough we're hearing about chemical weapons stockpiles, yellowcake buys, dire threats to American well-being, rose-petal-strewn streets, quickly returning American GIs, etc., etc.

Well, we know how all that turned out.

What we should really hear when we hear a policy wonk say "evil" is "I am attempting to justify what I fear I cannot otherwise justify by making reference to this shibboleth. Surely you aren't heretic or heathen enough to keep questioning me now!"

Mr. Brooks' article shows every indication that he has not the least notion of what he means when he says "evil." Of course, he can identify certain parties who are evil (radical Islam), but can he tell us what evil is more generally? I doubt it.

For instance, Brooks points out that one of Spielberg's terrorists makes a speech which "sounds like Mahmood Abbas," implying that somehow this makes for a sympathetic villain. But Abbas is the head of an organization (the PLO) which has killed innocents by the score, including those Olympic athletes, sometimes with sickening arbitrariness and viciousness. Not so long ago it was the PLO which led the list of the "evil" organizations that could only be eliminated, not negotiated with. Now their leader is the model for sympathetic insurrection?

On the other hand, hard-headed Brooks tells us that Spielberg's refusal to acknowledge evil means he gets his Israeli hero wrong, too. Far from being the conscience-ridden hero of Spielberg's film, real Israeli assassins are "less sympathetic" and "hard." Hard enough, one wonders, to kill or torture innocents? I think we already know the answer to that. You gotta crack some eggs and all that. There's probably an Arabic equivalent to that expression.

Are those Israelis really heroes? Or are they evil? Or is the small evil they do OK because it is done to benefit a larger, good, cause. But Bin Laden thinks he has a good cause, too, doesn't he?

And if, as Brooks implies at another point, evil is to be measured by one's intransigence, what are we to think of the zealots on the Israeli right, who don't really keep much of a secret of their determination to eliminate all those who oppose their vision of Zion. Are they evil?

My answer is "maybe" and "from a policy perspective, who cares?" The thing about evil and extremism is that it is everywhere: we've got extremists in the US, they're there in Israel, and they are amongst the Palestinians. In fact, we can probably just go along with what many Christian philosophers say and agree that all of us harbor evil in our hearts. The trick is to not let it get the upper hand: to rue the small evils that we do and to always be uncertain of the great goods we expect to arise from them. And most of all, perhaps, not to justify our own actions because our enemy is "evil" and anything we do against him is therefore acceptable. That is fairly close to the philosophy of the Bin Ladens.

The big trouble with the Palestinians and much of the Arab world is that extremism (or, if you insist, "evil") is not under control, as it generally is in the US and Israel. But this doesn't mean that those societies are inherently evil, or that we should never make any compromise with any of them. It means that we have to start trying to create the conditions under which consensus in those societies moves away from the extreme, where the populace will be less willing to look the other way or tacitly approve when they encounter atrocities, where extremism will pose a threat to them as well. In short, we have to give these people something they value which they might lose, we have to give the moderate less excuse to see us as evil, and we have to stop giving ourselves excuses to act out evil ourselves.

Our problem, though, is not our failure to acknowledge evil, it is the fact that we use it too much. We use the word evil when we want to leave our own motives unexamined; we use it when we want to ignore the legitimate grievances of others; and we use it when we want to justify our own evil acts.

I am far, far from saying that America is itself "Evil." I think that would be a stupid thing to say regardless of what we might be doing. I think we are the "good guys." I, for one, love this country enough that I do not have to lie and obfuscate to justify that love--I can love us imperfect as we are. But I think nothing is gained by idealizing either ourselves or our enemies. Let's have a cold honest look at ourselves and our situation and do what's needed to win. And let us, please, dispense with the childish need for unambiguous heroes and unambiguous villains so long and so assiduously cultivated in us by Mr. Spielberg and his Hollywood colleagues.

Mr. Brooks, it's time to grow up, forget about the boogie man, and face up to the ugly task of fighting a real, human conflict. It's time to let "evil" be a greater part of our private reflections and a much lesser part of our sometimes fatuous public discourse on the war.