Evil is as evil does
Michael Ledeen has a written a wonderful article that uses the evil in the world’s recent past (Hitler, Stalin), as a springboard for discussing the West’s resolute refusal to see the evil in its midst. I think the following paragraphs are the core of his argument, but the whole article is well worth reading:
By now, there is very little we do not know about such regimes, and such movements. Some of our greatest scholars have described them, analyzed the reasons for their success, and chronicled the wars we fought to defeat them. Our understanding is considerable, as is the honesty and intensity of our desire that such things must be prevented.
Yet they are with us again, and we are acting as we did in the last century. The world is simmering in the familiar rhetoric and actions of movements and regimes – from Hezbollah and al Qaeda to the Iranian Khomeinists and the Saudi Wahhabis – who swear to destroy us and others like us. Like their 20th-century predecessors, they openly proclaim their intentions, and carry them out whenever and wherever they can. Like our own 20th-century predecessors, we rarely take them seriously or act accordingly. More often than not, we downplay the consequences of their words, as if they were some Islamic or Arab version of “politics,” intended for internal consumption, and designed to accomplish domestic objectives.
Clearly, the explanations we gave for our failure to act in the last century were wrong. The rise of messianic mass movements is not new, and there is very little we do not know about them. Nor is there any excuse for us to be surprised at the success of evil leaders, even in countries with long histories and great cultural and political accomplishments. We know all about that. So we need to ask the old questions again. Why are we failing to see the mounting power of evil enemies? Why do we treat them as if they were normal political phenomena, as Western leaders do when they embrace negotiations as the best course of action?
No doubt there are many reasons. One is the deep-seated belief that all people are basically the same, and all are basically good. Most human history, above all the history of the last century, points in the opposite direction. But it is unpleasant to accept the fact that many people are evil, and entire cultures, even the finest, can fall prey to evil leaders and march in lockstep to their commands. Much of contemporary Western culture is deeply committed to a belief in the goodness of all mankind; we are reluctant to abandon that reassuring article of faith. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we prefer to pursue the path of reasonableness, even with enemies whose thoroughly unreasonable fanaticism is manifest.
This is not merely a philosophical issue, for to accept the threat to us means – short of a policy of national suicide – acting against it. As it did in the 20th century, it means war. It means that, temporarily at least, we have to make sacrifices on many fronts: in the comforts of our lives, indeed in lives lost, in the domestic focus of our passions – careers derailed and personal freedoms subjected to unpleasant and even dangerous restrictions – and the diversion of wealth from self-satisfaction to the instruments of power. All of this is painful; even the contemplation of it hurts.
Then there is anti-Semitism. Old Jew-hating texts like “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” now in Farsi and Arabic, are proliferating throughout the Middle East. Calls for the destruction of the Jews appear regularly on Iranian, Egyptian, Saudi and Syrian television and are heard in European and American mosques. There is little if any condemnation from the West, and virtually no action against it, suggesting, at a minimum, a familiar Western indifference to the fate of the Jews.
Finally, there is the nature of our political system. None of the democracies adequately prepared for war before it was unleashed on them in the 1940s. None was prepared for the terror assault of the 21st century. The nature of Western politics makes it very difficult for national leaders – even those rare men and women who see what is happening and want to act – to take timely, prudent measures before war is upon them. Leaders like Winston Churchill are relegated to the opposition until the battle is unavoidable. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to fight desperately to win Congressional approval for a national military draft a few months before Pearl Harbor.