act vs. agent

What was wrong with the Holocaust?

You might think this is a thuddingly rhetorical question; that
to ask it in earnest is offensive because the answer is obvious;
that to ask is it to imply that there could be some disagreement.
But I’m not sure the answer _is_ obvious, or that there is
_not_ disagreement, so I ask it in earnest nonetheless.

Other than a few cranks on the far right, no one denies that it
happened, and no one denies that it was a moral horror unrivaled
in our time, perhaps in history.

But what _kind_ of moral horror?

I would like to distinguish two basic answers, or families of
answers. This, like any broad division of things into twos, will
do some violence to the nuance and range of responses, but still,
it gets at something that has been nagging at me lately.

went to the Holocaust
in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago. As anyone who’s been
there can testify, it is extraordinarily unsettling, and it should
be. After I left, as I was walking across the Mall, I was struck
with an intense melancholy. It began with that question: What was
wrong with the Holocaust? What is the nature of the wrongness, the

One kind of person locates the evil in the act of killing. This
person–call him Act–believes that any killing is morally horrific,
and that cold-blooded killing on a massive, industrial scale is
what gives the Holocaust its unique status in the history of evil.

Another kind of person locates the evil in a man: Hitler. This
person–call him Agent–will concede that the killing was reprehensible,
that the behavior of the German people was unforgivable, and that
the circle of people Hitler brought to power with him was a pack
of dogs, but they will ultimately trace the evil back to Hitler.
He was the source, the historical locus; he was an evil man.

Perhaps you won’t see any difference in the case of the Holocaust,
but I think one’s inclinations in this case are echoed in many less
extreme cases.

The melancholy that struck me outside the museum sprang from this
thought: even something of this horror, this violence, this _size_…
even this cannot tell us which answer is the right one. No episode,
no act, no man, no horror has the power to transcend interpretation,
to say _this_ is my truth, _this_ is my meaning. I
suppose we academics are supposed to glorify in this sort of indeterminacy,
but I find it depressing.

Now, what’s the difference between the answers?

Agent will be inclined to see the course of history as the conflict
between evil men, who would oppress and enslave and destroy others,
and men of strength and virtue who stand up to them. Agent will
say that killing, as such, is not good or evil, though it may always
be lamentable. It is one’s motivations, one’s goals, one’s intent
that make it so. Hitler killed to conquer and enslave; he killed
out of hate. We killed–in WWI, in Hiroshima, in wars and ‘police
actions’ since–not to attack but to defend, not to conquer but
to liberate, not to take lives but to save them.

Our killings are justified; they are or were a regrettable but
unavoidable part of good turning back evil. If we lie on occasion
in our propaganda; if we are zealous in weeding out the evil in
our own citizenry; if we deny some citizens their rights for a time;
if we offend other countries or peoples… these are the price we
must sometimes pay. These are the necessary evils that attend a
just war. They are, in the favored formulation, in no way morally
"equivalent" to the evils committed by evil men. To imply
that they are is a kind of moral blindness, an inability to distinguish
those on the side of right from those on the side of might.

Act will be inclined to see the course of history as the repeated
succumbing of human nature to the temptations of hatred and greed,
the manipulation of resentment and dissatisfaction by those adept
at playing to those emotions. Act might concede that, if you take
a snapshot of a situation (either personal or geopolitical), there
might be cases where yes, this killing must be done to stop that
killing, this evil to stop that one. The killing is no longer avoidable.
But he would not conclude from this that killing is ever anything
but evil. He would ask that we step back from the snapshot, take
in the history, and see how every situation where killing seems
"necessary" is the result of a series of concessions to
the worst in human nature. Act will claim that part of the reason
acts of hate and violence are evil is that they inevitably carry
others in their wake. To counter hate and violence, when it has
spun out of control, requires more hate, more lies and violence
and oppression. It is the nature of evil acts to feed on themselves.

Agent will divide people into good and evil, and will tend to view
his opponents (rather than their arguments or their actions) as
evil, and thus beyond the pale of moral suasion. Act will find good
and evil enmeshed in human nature, and will contend that every person
is capable of both, depending on the situation. His arguments, unsettling
and inconclusive and inward-looking as they are, will never have
the rousing, trumpet-sounding resonance of Agent’s, and will lose
in the theater of public opinion, as they have lost throughout history,
except in rare cases.

Let’s update the question I began with.

What is wrong with the regime of Saddam Hussein?

Act, having followed events over the past year, will have been
somewhat confused. First the regime was a direct danger to us. Then
the danger was weapons of mass destruction falling into terrorist
hands–another 9/11. Then the issue was violation of UN sanctions.
Then it was the nature of the regime: a repressive tyranny. The
arguments and justifications for invasion have been fluid, morphing
based on circumstance or convenience. Many have been convinced by
some hybrid of the reasons, but they still aren’t quite sure how
they got from A to B, or what exactly the take-home principle is.

Act is confused because Bush is not Act, and he does not comfortably
mimic Act’s language, although he tries. He is Agent. Bush is foursquare
a part of a particular brand of evangelical Protestantism that believes
that the world is a stage upon which agents of God battle agents
of Satan–not metaphorically, but literally. Bush believes that
God chose him to lead the country at this moment in history, to
protect it from future terrorist attacks, and more broadly, to advance
American values–that is to say, God’s values–aggressively, by
force if necessary. The mission is to confront and destroy evil

To Bush, Saddam is evil, and that is reason enough to destroy him.

Arguments and claims about international law, about whether this
terrorist did or did not contact the regime, about whether this
or that weapon may or may not exist, are mere expedients, means
to an end. They are concessions to fickle public opinion. Quibbles
about civil liberties, or constitutional protections, or international
alliances, or rule of law, are to him the buzzing of mosquitoes.
His cause is right, and he is good. He will battle evil, no matter
the nattering of those who choose to accommodate or tolerate it.
History will celebrate him, as it celebrates all good men who identify
and battle evil.

It is probably obvious by now that I am Act. Those inclined to
identify with Agent will probably think I have caricatured their
view, or some such, and perhaps I have.

I cannot help but deride Agent, because I cannot help thinking
that Agent–who sees the world in terms of good and evil men–is
himself the source of virtually all the world’s pain and strife.
Of course, I want to shout, _every_ man who directs hate
and violence towards others thinks of himself as right, as good,
as battling evil! They all think they have been chosen by God. Osama
believes he was chosen by God.

But God himself told us, did he not, that judging men is _His_
job. For us, our job is to behave with kindness and compassion.
All of us are sinners; the best we can do is strive to _act_
like saints. It is our acts alone, not our natures, that can save

If Osama is wrong and the forces of Western liberalism are right
it is because our way of life produces more good acts than the one
he proposes. Our cultures, our constitutions, our economies, produce
contexts in which men’s violence is diverted by rule of law, in
which their intrinsic desire for safety and comfort and family finds
expression, in which power is distributed and never concentrated
in the hands of a few men.

We can point to evidence; we can make a rational case. Osama can
only point to a god to which he claims direct access.

It is not _we_ who are good and them evil; it is our rules,
our values, our _acts_ that are good. If we fight by their
rules, if we contravene our values and commit evil acts, we lose
that which distinguishes us from them. Good is not intrinsic to
us, not inherent; it is contingent upon our acts. It is fragile
and easily lost.

We lose it quickly when we are fooled by men who presume to judge
and act as gods. That is the lesson of the Holocaust, but it is,
tragically, not a lesson it forces upon us.