Regarding Evil and American Identity, Part 1:
We have a skewed idea of what most evil actually is. We think evil - true, active evil - has at its base the intent to do harm or wreak havoc. It conforms with our Western (and very American) notions of the devil or demons. Hannibal Lecter enjoys causing extraordinary pain and gruesome torture. A James Bond villain may want to blow up the Earth. And, for sure, there exists in the world this kind of evil, people for whom there is no motivation other than the desire to create suffering. But that's not the way most evil is practiced.

The majority of evil in history can be directly tied to people whose intention was to do good. "Good" here is defined by the very people committing the acts. We can see this on a massive scale: the Crusades were fought because the good Christians of the West believed their myths were more real than the Islamic myths and thus the Holy Land needed to be liberated. Most slave owners in America believed that whipping and mutilating wayward slaves actually taught a moral lesson. The British believed that slaughtering Indians and Africans would make the Empire more peaceful. Hitler and most Nazis believed they would make the world a better place by eliminating Jews (and homosexuals, etc.). Jihadists commit suicide bombings and crash planes because they believe their myths are more real than Christian myths. Of course, there's always myriad sundry and soiled reasons for mass evil to be committed: the desire for and/or maintenance of power, the desire for and/or maintenance of wealth, and more. But, at the end of the day, most of the Hutus who macheted body parts off Tutsi neighbors in Rwanda believed they were justified, that they were doing good, that they were protecting themselves, that they were eliminating an enemy.

In none of these situations do we forgive the perpetrators. In none of these historical moments do we simply elide over the violence and horror because the people doing it thought they were making their world a better place. We call "evil" by its name because we know that's what it is.

We are in a unique position, here, now, in this America, in that we are in a moment where we confront whether or not we are going to agree to become evil. No, we're not about to have a Kristallnacht or ethnic cleansing (yet). But our government is now trying to figure out just how evil it will be. The decisions to do evil are most often made by well-dressed people in small rooms, men and women who send out others below them to actually commit the evil acts. Most nations' evil is done as part of a program, documented and prepared, xeroxed and signed off on. A contract of sorts that evil will be done.

The very facts that we are engaged in a debate over how much pain, suffering, and humiliation is too much for the human mind and body; that we are arguing over whether to suspend legal principles that were established centuries ago in order to challenge unchecked power; that there simply exists no compelling reason for soldiers to continue to die in a war, all speak to our teetering on the brink of becoming an evil nation.

Last night, on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann was right: we are led by moral cowards. But, to take it further, more evil has been committed by fearful people than by brave ones. Ask the Bosnians.

We have to accept that, whatever their intentions, whatever reasons they might have had for their actions, the ones that they give mighty speeches about before handpicked crowds and the ones that they only whisper in private to their reflections in the mirror, we are now being led by people who are doing evil. This doesn't mean that others around the world are not doing evil. Just because al-Qaeda members commit evil deeds doesn't mean that Donald Rumsfeld does not. A man who murdered someone in a drive-by shooting is not excused because he is put into a jail cell next to a serial killer.

If we dare accept to our horror and infinite shame that we have allowed ourselves to be represented by people who do evil, even in the name of good, then we can either be complicit - we can go about our daily lives while the stench of the concentration camp pollutes the air of the town - or we can reject evil.

Tomorrow: "What do you want from us, Rude Pundit? What are you talking about? And can you be funnier? We like the funny."

Note: The Rude Pundit is aware of the moral, even religious, connotations of the word "evil." He intends to connote those very things. If you don't understand why, then you haven't been paying attention to American culture of the last thirty years.