January 26, 2004


A colleague of mine once suggested to me that everything about my stance on 9/11, including my Gitlin-esque criticism of the academic left, was fair enough except for one thing. I used the word “evil” to talk about both the attack and the larger ideologies that motivated it.

I know why she has misgivings. President Bush munches through the word like a kid lost in a candy store, with appalling casualness, and he’s hardly alone. Bloggers left and right label things “evil” with abandon. Don’t like something? Critical of a practice or an idea or a person? Must be eeevil.

Still, I won’t give up the word. Evil exists, and refusing to see it as such when it presents itself is a dangerous kind of myopia. If we gave up all the words and ideas that are overused or misused, we’d be mute.

I was thinking a lot about evil over the weekend when I read Peter Landesman’s cover story in the New York Times Magazine on forced prostitution and sexual slavery around the world. It clarified a lot for me about what I think evil is and is not, though at the high price of being one of the three or four most disturbing things I have read in the past year. Some of the details from the article would seem unreal if they appeared in a novel by an unusually lurid and imaginatively depraved author. I can’t make myself repeat here some of the material about the forms of compulsion and brutality used on child prostitutes that the article describes, even though some of the images will be hard for me to ever forget. I almost would say do yourself a favor and don’t read the article: some of the details are that painful, that scarring.

The men and women described in the article as involved in sex trafficking are committing evil. There’s nothing in between them and the pain they cause, no excuses or alibis, no veils. No possibility of misunderstanding the relation between action and consequence. There isn’t even the defense of ideological loyalty or cultural self-defense that torturers and killers in places like South Africa have feebly offered for their intimate crimes. There’s no enemy to fight. Just a child or woman being raped, abused, starved, mutilated for personal gain. I suppose some of the people involved might say that in the midst of enormous poverty, all choices are bad, or that when there is slavery, one either enslaves or is enslaved. Both excuses are transparent bullshit here. The people profitting in this case are looking their victims in the eye and committing their crimes in plain sight, and for nothing more than their own gain.

Contrarily, the article helped convince me even more of something I’ve already concluded, that in the end it’s terribly difficult to label more abstract actions taken by leaders or authorities as evil, no matter how horrible their consequences. People in power are insulated in so many ways, to the point where it is both plausible and often quite true when they say that they did not or cannot see how their actions translate into distant, intimate suffering for other people. This is not to say that you cannot use the word in these situations—the top bosses of the organizations described by Landesman’s article must know very well what is going on, even if they don’t know some of the hellish particulars. Most of the worst authoritarians and tyrants of recent history got blood on their own hands at some point, but even if they don’t, few of them can plead that they didn’t know what was going on.

It’s just that you have to leave room for the actual complexity of how things happen in the world, and for a real and meaningful distance, with ethical meaning, between what power does, what plans are made, what policies dictate, and what happens between individuals, in the intimacy of everyday life. Most human suffering isn’t something that one person does willfully, with foresight and understanding of the consequences, to another. Neither does it come immaculately and sponteaneously from the air or the ground, but the suffering that comes from and resides within society is distributed in its origins and its infliction. The things we do in our lives, whether we’re high officials or ordinary people, have consequences and sometimes very bad ones, for which we ought to be held responsible and hold ourselves responsible, sometimes in very serious ways. But evil is a term I’d reserve in this context for exceptional circumstances where the connection between particular actions and the serious suffering of particular individuals are clear and are known to the actor and known in advance by him or her to be morally indefensible.

Landesman’s article also made me realize that when I think of evil, it is not something outside the human frame of reference. Evil is not a word for the things we do not understand, and if we try to forbid the investigation of evil on the grounds that it is strange, mysterious, alien to us, we shouldn’t be using the word. If Mohammed Atta cannot be understood, if what he did makes no sense whatsoever to a self-proclaimed normal person, it’s not evil. Jeffrey Dahmer was not, at least to me, evil, because I have no emotional window at all into his crimes. I don’t understand any of his desires or his actions. He was unquestionably horribly damaged and terribly dangerous and the world would have been better if he’d died before he ever hurt anyone, but I can’t see him as evil. This is what Inga Clendinnin asks us to think about the Holocaust: if we declare that we can’t understand someone like Heinrich Himmler from the inside out, as another human being who did things that we plausibly could imagine ourselves doing, we don’t know any of the things that we need to know about Himmler or the Holocaust itself.

This is why I think that not only the people who enslave others and sell their sexual services are evil, but the johns as well. It’s one thing in the context of the legal sex industry in the United States for a consumer to make a default assumption of contractual consent by a performer when viewing a porn tape or a stripper. It’s another thing if we’re talking about an adult sodomizing a ten year old prostitute in some hovel in a small American city.

I can make that judgement because I have an interest in profit, and understand very well what I would and would not do for it, and why I would or would not. I can make that judgement because I get erections and feel sexual desire and understand very well what I would do and not do to satisfy that desire.

It is not that I accept Catherine MacKinnon’s view of male desire as always violent and violating, whether it’s arousal when watching a supermodel on television or purchasing the services of a ten-year old slave. It’s precisely because I see an absolute distinction that MacKinnon does not see between desire and evil. I see acceptable male desire, with whatever complex ethical issues it does or does not raise, desire involving the consent of others, with whatever complexities come with the concept of consent. And I see desire that is absolutely evil, that violates and hurts and steals. There is a difference there that the conventional MacKinnonite argument obliterates and banalizes.

I see that distinction because I have greed and I have desire and there is much that I choose not to do in response to those feelings. Not because I am already economically comfortable and not because I am already monogamously satisfied in my romantic and sexual life. This is not an Olympian judgement on mere mortals. Anyone can and might choose to inflict unnecessary and intimately human suffering on others. Anyone can commit evil, and anyone can choose not to. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from: there is no excuse for staring another person in the face and torturing them, mutilating their minds and raping their bodies, stealing their childhoods and their humanity. No accident of character, no fact of culture, no arrangement of circumstance: no excuse.