Two bombs were planted in lower Manhattan on Sept. 17. One exploded, injuring 29; the other failed to go off. Mayor De Blasio declared that these were “deliberate acts,” but refused to call them terrorism. Another bomb went off in New Jersey at the site of a Marine Corps 5K run, while a man ran through a Minnesota mall stabbing nine people and yelling about “Allah.” Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton objected to Donald Trump calling the New York attacks “bombings.”
– News reports
What is going on? First we are told not to call terrorism “terrorism,” and now we are criticized for calling bombs “bombs.” Are some people living in an alternate reality? Has political correctness degenerated into a delusional disorder? In an effort to answer these questions, I suggest taking the following brief quiz:
The photo on the left shows Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), an architect of 9/11 and beheader of American journalist Daniel Pearl. The photo on the right shows Pearl in captivity, shortly before his murder. But which photo shows the face of evil?
The man on the left is ugly, and his expression betrays anger and contempt. The photo on the right shows a man being held hostage because he is an American and a Jew. It shows him being abused and mistreated. I am sparing you from photos of the actual beheading.
The face of KSM is not difficult to look at, ugly though it is. But the mistreatment and eventual beheading of an innocent man is difficult indeed to look at, because it is the face of evil. Evil is what people do, not how they appear. Still, it is our duty to look. Only then will we know what we are up against.
Do you remember Daniel Pearl? Like many other victims of terrorism, he vanished down the media’s memory hole. Similarly, images of the collapsing Twin Towers are rarely shown, except occasionally on the anniversary of 9/11. And what about Fort Hood, San Bernardino, and other terrorist attacks? They have been pushed into the dim recesses of memory – if we remember them at all.
When Hitler was on the march, leftists and pacifists told us to relax, because there was no Genghis Khan on the horizon. And when the Soviet Union acted aggressively, they told us that there was no Hitler threatening us. Now, when extremist Islamists commit terrorist acts, they tell us not to “over-react,” because there is no more Soviet Union to worry about. Leftists and pacifists recognize evil only after it has been defeated by other people courageous enough to risk their lives to defend freedom. The rear-view mirror is not the place to look for danger; for that we must look out the windshield.
If we see each terrorist attack as an “isolated incident,” then we believe there is nothing to remember. If we see terrorists as common criminals rather than as enemy combatants in an ongoing war, then we believe there is nothing more to do.
Meanwhile, TV and films are filled with images of phony violence, and “reality” shows display actual car crashes and other calamities. It isn’t images of violence and ugliness that we censor – it’s images of evil. The result is that we become used to violence and ugliness, but we remain unfamiliar with the appearance of evil. And if we don’t know what evil looks like, how can we avoid it, much less fight it?
What we should do, if we have the guts, is to look evil in the face. No, I don’t mean look death in the face – I mean evil. There’s a big difference, but one that many Americans have trouble recognizing.
I first saw death when I was in the second grade, and a classmate was run over near my home. Our class attended the funeral. I can’t recall if the coffin was open, but I think it was, because for years I associated death with satin cushions. My father died of a heart attack when I was 19, and I vividly remember his wax-like face as family and colleagues paid their respects at the funeral home.
Then I went to medical school, where we spent a semester dissecting a cadaver. Unlike the frail, elderly cadavers of most students, ours was muscular – he had died not of old age but of a gunshot wound to the head. I realized that our good fortune of having well-developed muscles to study resulted from his bad fortune of having been shot.
I learned to separate the tragedy of death from the evil of murder. The deaths of my father and my little classmate were tragedies. This man’s death resulted from evil. Of course, it was also tragic for his family and friends, if he had any. But the cause of death was a gunshot wound, resulting from murder, resulting from evil. I learned more than anatomy in that class.
When I was 26, I had a head-on collision with a wrong-way driver on a freeway. Both cars were estimated as going 50 miles per hour at impact. Death has many faces. To Daniel Pearl it looked like the blade of a knife. But to me that day, it looked like the front end of a Chevy. The elderly driver was killed, his wife was seriously injured, and both cars were demolished, but I got out of the hospital the next day. I figured that every day from then on was a gift.
Later, I had two health scares. The first was a false alarm. The second was real, but was taken care of. Then my mother died, as did uncles, aunts, and colleagues. Of course these deaths hit me hard. But by that time, death was no stranger. It always came as a shock, but not a surprise. It was always a tragedy.
But if I wanted to see the results of evil, I could visit the emergency room and observe gunshot wounds, stabbings, beatings, and other evidence of man’s inhumanity. The difference between tragedy and evil was clear.
So I speak with some authority when I say that I have looked into the face of death. Believe me when I tell you that it is not the face of evil.
We worship health, youth, and beauty, so we are terrified – even disgusted – by the thought of death, illness, or disability. Worship of health, youth, and beauty tends to produce fear of losing them, rather than empathy for those who have lost them.
Younger Americans have gotten so used to good health that they take it for granted. Often even middle-aged people have never had to endure the death of a family member or friend, and many have never seen a dead body. Death is even more frightening when it’s an unknown.
But when you have seen death face to face, as have soldiers, police officers, firefighters, paramedics, nurses, and doctors, it’s a bit less frightening. What’s really frightening is evil, with its far-reaching effects and many varieties.
One reason for the fear is that reality shakes us out of our peaceful illusions. It shakes us out of the comfortable fantasy that human nature is basically good. Reality forces us to realize that although we may have good intentions, we aren’t going around with haloes that others can see. Our good intentions can’t protect us from evildoers, any more than they protected Daniel Pearl. In fact, our good intentions are worthless unless they are translated into good deeds.
Another reason for the fear is that we are forced to recognize that evildoers don’t always attack someone else – someone in the “bad” part of town. If 9/11 taught us anything (and that’s a big if), it’s that the whole world is now the “bad” part of town. The oceans no longer protect us, nor do upscale suburbs or gated communities.
We can no longer afford the illusion that violence afflicts only those in the inner city, or in the Middle East. And these thoughts are frightening – especially to those who hold onto their peaceful illusions most strongly.
The first thing to do when we fear something is to understand it. The only way to understand evil is to look it in the face. The face is horribly ugly, but once we have the courage to look, it becomes a bit less frightening.
Equally important, it becomes recognizable. Once we can recognize evil, we can fight it. True, the fight will be difficult and dangerous. But if we have things in perspective, we realize that evil is to be feared even more than death itself.
Otherwise, we will continue to treat each attack as an “isolated incident.” In order to connect the dots, first we need the intellectual honesty to recognize that they are dots, and then we need the courage to connect them.
Even sociopaths and homicidal fanatics can be unnerved if we stare unflinching into their eyes. We need to look evil in the face. Then we’ll know what to do.
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