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Dear Mr. President ... On Good and Evil

Your administration has just begun to walk on dry land. Take that statement any way you like. E.g., your ideas are evolving and only now have emerged from the primordial sea of campaign ooze. Or, e.g., it is time for you to get real and quit walking on water.

Anyway, we don’t know much about how your policies—especially your foreign policy—will work. You intend to withdraw from Iraq. Ah, don’t we all. And you appointed a secretary of state who thinks that “foreign affairs” means her husband is overseas.

Madam Secretary traveled to China, met its leaders, and did not so much as hint that the Chinese Communist Party adheres to every principle and engages in every practice that the founders of the United States of America deemed tyrannical and vile.

Mr. President, you gave a nice and—as stirring boilerplate goes—stirring inaugural address. But in that speech the word “democracy” never passed your lips. You did not refer to democracy in the United States let alone democracy, or the hope of democracy, in the rest of the world. Instead you said, “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity.” Mr. President, Robert Mugabe seeks a future of peace and dignity—for himself.

You claimed that a “demand” exists for “greater cooperation and understanding between nations.” I hope you mean an expanded NATO kind of cooperation and understanding and not the Hitler-Stalin Pact kind. You proposed a “new way forward” with the Muslim world to be “based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” Mutual interest is not always benign (e.g. Hitler-Stalin Pact). As for mutual respect, Israel and Hezbollah have that for each other, if grudgingly.

Mr. President, you told “leaders around the globe” that “your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.” In which case the Pharaoh Cheops is the global political figure whom we most respect and admire. And we harshly judge Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams, who destroyed the cooperation, understanding, mutual interest, mutual respect, and future of peace and dignity between Great Britain and the thirteen colonies.

Mr. President, you listed the “values upon which our success depends.” I hope this was not an exhaustive list: “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.” The hordes of Genghis Khan had these values, after their fashion.

Doubtless, Mr. President, I’m just recounting some of the inevitable slips and goofs that accompany the undertaking of any new endeavor. I don’t mean to be hypercritical. And I’m probably making too much of your reticence on the subject of democracy. Democracy is a necessary—if not always sufficient—condition of equality before the law and hence of all human liberty. But democracy can have deleterious consequences: you, the House, and the Senate, if I may say so as a Republican. And equality before the law, if carried to extremes, would have deprived you of your no doubt soon-to-be-excellent Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner.

Therefore, Mr. President, I give you—in the matter of foreign policy at least—the benefit of the doubt. Every new Most-Powerful-Person-in-the-World should be offered this, until the world irrefutably proves itself too much for him. However, there is one thing I’d like to know in advance about your global strategic initiatives. It’s the most general of general questions: how do you feel about evil?



We could start with whether you feel America is evil. But we know what your wife thinks about this, or did until recently. I’m a married man myself, Mr. President. And I’m sure your nuptial motto is, like mine, “Yes, Dear.” So let’s pass over that specific matter and talk about evil in a larger context. You are better educated and younger than I am so I won’t presume to lecture. I’m sure you’ve read your ancient philosophers more carefully and more recently than I have. But let me here refresh my own memory and that of any reader who, like me, is decades away from the classroom and went to a state college.

Traditionally, evil is held to be of two types. There is “natural evil,” evil that happens to you. And there is “moral evil,” evil that you do. A storm blows away your mobile home—natural evil. You cheat FEMA by falsely claiming it was a double-wide—moral evil.

Natural evil is an occasion for all Americans—indeed for all citizens of the earth—to work together in the harmony and fellowship of which your political party is so fond. Democrats are grateful for natural evil. Certainly Hurricane Katrina did the Democrats a huge favor. Democrats love to formulate plans to combat hunger, poverty, illness, and dwelling places that are gone with the wind.

Moral evil is more complicated for Democrats, unless the morally evil were running hedge funds. Mr. President, I am guessing—but to be fair, only guessing—that your foreign policy will concentrate on natural evil. I don’t accuse you of ignoring moral evil. The additional troops you’re sending to Afghanistan do not go armed only with Habitat for Humanity hammers and saws. I hope. But let’s face it, natural evil is more cheerful and upbeat, with endless potential for hope and change.

You’d think that separating natural and moral evil would be easy. But, Mr. President, you don’t have teenage children yet. You haven’t received the phone call from police custody when the seventeen-year-old son tells you an accident “happened.” Adolescents have finely honed grammatical skills in employment of the passive voice and use of the interrogative rising pitch to turn factual statements into subjunctive conjectures. An accident happened. To your car. It’s a natural evil. Lengthy probing (and the Breathalyzer test results) will be needed before any moral aspect emerges from this natural evil.

You let your kid borrow the pickup. After all, how much trouble can he get into with a rusty half-ton diesel that has a snowplow attached? “Uh, Dad, there was this girl I was seeing? But, uh, now she’s seeing this guy Jason? And, like, some beer was there? And Jason has a Civic? It’s like tuned up? He thinks it’s so cool? And he goes, like you know . . . So, like, I go you know . . . And . . . [blurted at great speed] . . . Irammedhiscarwiththesnowplow.”

Mr. President, lacking teenage children, can you really tell the difference between natural and moral evil? Do you think George W. Bush could have understood that Iraq was a moral evil rather than a natural evil if it hadn’t been for his mischievous twin daughters? (The Western Europeans—who don’t often have legitimate children any more—were baffled.)

What further worries me is that there’s an imaginary third kind of evil that some people—the people who voted for you—believe in. They call it social injustice. This is the appearance of evil that results from vice being rewarded and virtue being punished. The technical term in philosophy is Entertainment Tonight. Such appearances of evil occur around the world. They tempt the most powerful person in the world to turn the world upside down for appearances’ sake. Be careful, Mr. President. The things that have been done in the name of battling social injustice are things like the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Cultural Revolution, and the Pol Pot regime.

The Old Testament God was acutely aware of the questions arising from perceived inequity. He dealt with the matter at length. If I’m reading the Book of Job correctly, God’s answer was, “Because I said so.” For reasons of separation of church and state you may be unwilling to bring God into the policy-making process. In that case, I suggest you consult the father of the Civic-bashing teenage boy. Pop has heard the social injustice argument.

“When Jason’s car got wrecked his dad bought him a new one, but your pickup barely got a scratch on the plow blade and I lost my license until I’m twenty-one and have to go to substance abuse classes and got grounded until, like, forever.”

Mr. President, even if you talk to an angry parent rather than an angry God, I’m glad to know you believe in the latter. (It may not suit the fellow who usually writes this letter, but I am less secure than he in my place as the wisest form of intelligence in the universe.) You believe in God; therefore you believe in the reality of good; therefore, I presume you believe in the reality of evil. I can infer that you aren’t under a misapprehension that evil is a lamentable by-product of deprivation, prejudice, misunderstanding, or lack of quality time and bonding opportunities with supportive parents or parent or other caregiver. You’re a member of a respected Christian denomination, so you can’t be a complete moral ignoramus.

Yet we really don’t know much about your religious life except that you don’t pay attention in church. I mean, here’s the Reverend Jeremiah Wright having Tourette’s syndrome in the pulpit week after week, his head rotating like Linda Blair’s while he recites mimeograph tracts from the Symbionese Liberation Army, and you never noticed. Well, not paying attention in church—we’ve all been there. And, as a Catholic, I’m in no position to criticize people for what their clergy has gotten up to. I assume you believe in a personal God. What I want to know is: do you believe in a personal Satan?

Mr. President, do you regard evil as an active force going to and fro in the earth and walking up and down in it? Osama bin Laden goes to and fro. Or do you hold the sometimes theologically fashionable view that evil is the absence of good? With the right twelve-step program, Osama might come around. (He does acknowledge a Higher Power.)

In your inaugural address you spoke to foreign leaders “who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent.” You told those leaders that America “will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Mr. President, there are some bloody knuckles and sticky fingers out there that ought to be cuffed. Never mind giving them daps.

You called for, as I mentioned, “understanding between nations.” What for? Why should we try to see things from Kim Jong Il’s point of view? Ask any villain for self-justification and you’ll get hours of Larry King Live.

Mr. President, you said, “we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass.” Sorry, I’m not waving goodbye to my detestation of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, Communism, the Castro brothers, Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or, for that matter, Nancy Pelosi.

You said, “Our common humanity shall reveal itself.” You said that as if it were a good thing. Didn’t you get the memo on original sin? Humanity is a wicked bunch. You’re an Illinois politician; how could you be confused about human nature? If being human meant being virtuous, we could abolish all governments. As it is, only North Korea, Zimbabwe, Belarus, and Illinois would benefit from that step. (And you, like so many other Americans these days, would be out of work.)

Mr. President, you’re too smart to underestimate the evil that we face. Or is too smart the problem? I hope you haven’t over-thought the question of evil the way one ancient philosopher did.

Brilliant, pleasure-seeking, vain, slovenly Epicurus—so reminiscent of Barney Frank—reasoned that if God is willing to prevent evil but unable, then God is impotent. If God is able to prevent evil but unwilling, then God is malevolent. If God is willing and able but still doesn’t prevent evil, then evil ain’t so bad.

The world does not need an Epicurian America. We’re fat enough already, present company excepted. And we don’t want to wait until the geopolitical toga party is in full swing before making up our minds about what’s right and what’s wrong.

P. J. O’Rourke is a political satirist, author, and a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly.

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