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McVeigh and the 'Problem' of Evil

Decline and Fall

By Ross G. Douthat

Maybe I’m the only person in America who’s sick of Timothy McVeigh’s long-chinned mug. It certainly seems that way, now that all the pundits, pontificators and pop philosophers have taken him back into their headline-happy hearts, using his impending exit from this mortal coil as an excuse to bloviate on their favorite topics—the (im)morality of the death penalty, the perils of home-grown government haters, the dangers of terrorism, the inadequacies of the criminal justice system and onward down the list.

The most fulsomely fatuous of these McVeigh-related maunderings, though, surely belongs to Newsweek, which turned the FBI foul-up that granted him a reprieve into a hellishly crimson cover story entitled “Evil: What Makes People Go Wrong?” Inside, the fetching McVeigh baby pictures were lined up, and the usual collection of nonentities (psychiatrists, neurologists and sociologists) offered the usual collection of thoughts—evildoers “lack empathy,” they “rationalize” their crimes, they like to “dehumanize others.” Sometimes they have neglectful parents—sometimes they accept an intolerant ideology—sometimes they just get caught up in mob violence. Either it’s in their heads, in other words, or it’s in their social context.

Which is all very fascinating, if you happen to get your moral philosophy from the glossy pages of America’s newsweeklies. If you don’t, though, you might wonder about Newsweek’s insistence that “We want to see Timothy McVeigh as evil incarnate, as Satan, as depravity in human form...Doing so allows us to place him in a category labeled EVIL with a capital E, but also, more importantly, one labeled NOT US.”

As a wise man once said, “Who are you calling we, white man?” The idea that there is some kind of category of “evil incarnate” into which we can dump the McVeighs of the world might be attractive to those who think that the world is slowly chugging toward the Age of Aquarius, but it hardly squares with the long and bloody experience of human history. Neither does the notion, so prized by the various -ologists who natter to Newsweek about their experience with sociopaths, that if only we can do away with childhood traumas and nasty intolerant religions, and maybe get more fluoride into the drinking water, then everything is gonna be all right—rockabye.

The truth, of course, is a lot messier—namely, that these so-called “EVIL with a capital E” types are just us, the way we really are, once you strip away all the law-abiding, paycheck-loving, 9-to-5 trimmings that make our American civilization tick. People have been killing people since Cain and Abel—or since homo sapiens and Neanderthals, if you like the Darwinian creation myth better. And they aren’t about to stop just because it makes modern liberals distinctly uncomfortable.

To which Newsweek replies, sure, people kill people, but after all “there has been only one Hitler.” And they’re right, but that observation rather misses the point, because alongside Hitler there was Himmler, and Goering, and Goebbels, and Heydrich—not to mention the whole Nazi Party apparatus, made up of ordinary German folk. And if you think, like Daniel Goldhagen of Hitler’s Willing Executioners fame, that killing your neighbor is a uniquely Deutsche phenomenon, then maybe you’d like to be introduced to all the conquered European peoples who happily set about shipping their Jews off to the Nazi charnel houses. Or to Stalin’s Russians, Pol Pot’s Cambodians, Idi Amin’s Ugandans, and so on, ad infinitum.

“Collateral damage,” Timothy McVeigh calls the victims in Oklahoma City, and the people who want to “cure” evil ooh and aah, as if the Middle American murderer is expressing a horrifyingly original thought. But the story of humanity, from the Mongol hordes sacking Silk Road cities and piling up skulls like gumdrops, to Hutus and Tutsis hacking at each other in the Rwandan bush, has always been one of “collateral damage”—of killing people who happen to get in your way.

But we don’t do that, the evil-curers bleat. We’ve got human rights and civil liberties and tolerance, and we’ve made people stop killing each other.

They’re right, in a way—we don’t kill people in America every time a political dispute doesn’t go our way, and a good thing too. (Florida, anyone?) But the secret isn’t out vaunted human rights tradition, or our investment in psychotherapy—it’s our limitless resources, our wide open spaces and our money. We in the West have made a deal, brokered by John Locke, who told us that God gave the world “to the use of the industrious and rational,” not to the fanatics and troublemakers and priests. Locke, and later Adam Smith, declared that we could have everything that people used to kill for, and have it cheap, as long as we buried the hatchet on religion and ideology and racial hatred. And (after a while) we listened, put down our swords and went into the business world instead.

The deal has worked, in a way—we’re rich and peaceful and (arguably) happy. But the hatchet is still there, waiting to be picked up by anyone who isn’t satisfied with the honeyed words of the English philosophers—by Timothy McVeigh and Theodore J. Kaczynski ’62 in the ’90s, by the Black Panthers and the Weathermen in the early ’70s, and by Adolf Hitler in Weimar Germany only seven decades back.

Civilization, Joseph Conrad writes in Heart of Darkness, is “like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.”

And it may be here tomorrow—despite the best ministrations of every “expert on evil” that the good people at Newsweek call in to deal with the meaningless, tedious “problem” of Timothy McVeigh.

Ross G. Douthat ’02 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears regularly.

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