Thursday, February 06, 2003

Good vs. Evil

Last week, Collin Powell laid out the US case against the evil in Iraq. But I have already spent a considerable amount of time discussing the nature of "evil" via email with Steve, an old friend from childhood.

Steve and I have been carrying on a heated though good-natured debate over the last several months. It’s funny how two thinking adults, raised in the same society and the same community, could wind up holding such widely diverging viewpoints. Our point-counterpoint exchange can be summed up quite simply:

I believe there is such a thing as absolute good and evil. He doesn’t.

In truth, his point of view is more consistent with where we both came from. We were indoctrinated on a traditional liberal American Jewish belief system, the tenets of which included always voting democratic, belief in God optional, belief in science mandatory, and above all, an abiding faith that everything is relative. That everything can be spun according to who’s telling the story and that there are no absolutely no absolutes.

Then I came to Israel.

Where I confronted war. Real hatred. Life and death struggle. It was about as far away from the armchair moral relativism of my youth as anything I can imagine.

It’s taken me many years to internalize, but I have: evil is real. There truly are good guys and bad guys and you are not a knee-jerk proto-fascist conservative if you take a stand on that.

Growing up, everything wrong with government was summed up as being about greed and power. In this scenario, as presented by Steve, U.S. interests in the Middle East are solely about control of the oil fields, about ensuring that there’s enough liquid gold to keep the SUVs of the west gaily guzzling.

Good and evil? Moral clarity? Not in that dictionary.

There’s a reason video games are still so popular in America. It’s been a long time since serious armed conflict with rockets and tanks was something Americans had to worry about on a daily basis. And there’s never been a time when people got blown up by suicide bombers around the corner from your house or your school. That kind of thing happens far away in exotic lands separated by miles and miles of ocean. So the conflict gets played out in the virtual realm.

But video game culture cannot thrive if there is real evil.

Because if there is real evil, then if your man gets blown up on screen, that could really be you. Or your family. You might feel the pain. You might even cry. That wouldn’t be any fun.

Certainly, there’s considerable danger in believing in the concept of good and evil. It’s entirely too easy to get caught up in fundamentalism, to be brainwashed into believing that evil are those who get in the way of the crusade.

But without such a belief, everything looks the same. In one particularly email exchange, Steve wrote to me:

“The question is, how do you determine what ‘evil’ is? Is it anyone who supports terrorist acts? Well, the U.S. supports terrible, dictatorial regimes worldwide that care nothing of civil rights or democracy. Does this not this make the U.S. evil as well?”

Good point, Steve. There’s no denying that our shared birth land has done some very nasty things over the years. I am not an absolute apologetist. But just because the US has not been and still is not perfect doesn’t negate the fact that some things are inherently correct and others wrong.

Hijacking planes and blowing them up inside skyscrapers is wrong.

Deliberately killing women, children and unarmed civilians at a Bat Mitzvah party is wrong.

Sending six million people to their deaths because they are different is wrong.

Why do we even have to explain this anymore? Not so much to Steve, but to the world at large.

As Steve continued his argument, the tone turned to ironic despair:

“I fear the human race isn’t long for this planet,” he wrote. “I can’t even imagine what it will take to save the human race. Maybe an invasion from another planet.”

Where the whole world unites and we zap those space invaders wearing our 3-D wrap-around virtual reality goggles?

Steve’s sentiments echoed those in the old Prince song:

Yeah, everybody's got a bomb, we could all die any day. But before I'll let that happen, I'll dance my life away.

They say two thousand zero, zero, party over, oops, out of time! So tonight we're gonna party like it's 1999!

But we passed 1999 and we’re still here. Hope is not dead.

Not to disappoint the more spiritually inclined, but I don’t come at my belief in good and evil from a religious perspective. Maybe that’s a remnant from my upbringing. Rather, I still hold, despite the mounting odds and increasing evidence to the contrary, that people are inherently good, and that every man, woman or child, no matter how small or far from the seats of power, can make a difference.

How can I still believe in goodness? Because I believe there is evil.

And that’s my bottom line, my own Collin Powell case for how good can, will and must eventually prevail over evil. But it requires that we know where we stand, and that we have an intimate, personal understanding of what’s real and what's virtual.

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