The Magazine

Evil Under the Sun

Barack Obama and American exceptionalism.

Nov 3, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 08 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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"Does evil exist?" the Reverend Rick Warren asked John McCain and Barack Obama at the Saddleback Forum on August 16. "If so, should we ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it, or defeat it?"

"Defeat it," McCain said. "Not long ago in Baghdad, al Qaeda took two young women who were mentally disabled and put suicide vests on them, sent them into a market place, and by remote control detonated those suicide vests. If that isn't evil, you have to tell me what is." Obama took a more philosophical turn: "Evil does exist," he said. "We see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. .  .  . We are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil, .  .  . [but] we can confront it. .  .  . One thing I think is very important is for us to have some humility. .  .  . A lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil. .  .  . Just because we think our intentions are good doesn't mean that we're going to be doing good." The Bible tells us there is evil everywhere under the sun (as does Agatha Christie), but the two men's ideas of it could not be more different.

To McCain, evil is something specific and vivid, a deliberate decision made by others--sometimes by movements and governments--to do harm: Auschwitz, the Gulag, the planned starvation by Stalin in the 1930s of millions of Ukrainians, beheadings and torture by militant radicals, bombs planted in soccer fields, planes flown into buildings. To Obama, evil is something that happens by accident, and quite often happens at home. To McCain, evil itself cannot be defeated, as it appears over time in differing guises, but each face--fascism, communism, radical terrorism--can be and ought to be beaten. Obama thinks evil should be confronted, but the concept of beating it seems out of the question. Efforts to do so suggest moral arrogance and may make things even worse.

There is merit of course in each of these visions, as evil exits in different dimensions and grades: There is the evil that exists in even "good" states and people, which must be accepted and worked with, and evil that crosses the line and must be dealt with forcibly. Knowing the difference between them is the prime task of statesmen, who must never use force when other methods will suffice, but not shy from doing so when only force can prevail. Cold War presidents such as Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan avoided military strikes at the Soviet Union while making it clear they were ready and willing to use them if necessary, while Franklin Roosevelt and (the half-American) Winston S. Churchill earned their chops and their place in American hearts by their early assessment of Hitler as evil, and their relentless desire to bring him to heel. For better or worse, from the very beginning, Americans have warmed to those who have promised to fight against evil--and ranked them on the side of the (relative) good.

The idea of America as a force for morality predates the founding of the nation. The first European settlers saw America as a noble experiment, a do-over for the corrupt and compromised cultures of Europe, and a chance in an unspoiled terrain of endless abundance to start the world anew. The Puritans saw themselves as the Children of Israel in a new iteration, delivered from bondage (in Egypt and England), escaped by the way of a perilous voyage (through the Red Sea, and over the ocean), and settled at last in their own land of promise, where their work for the Lord could begin. The Puritans built a religious community that they believed would serve to the world as a model of piety, under the terms of a covenant detailed by John Winthrop in 1630 that served as a template for the next 300-plus years of American history: "He hath taken us to be His, after a most strict and peculiar manner, which will make Him the more jealous of our love and obedience. .  .  . For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us."