The problem with 'good vs. evil' perspective

"LIBERTY FOR the Iraqi people," President Bush told us in September 2002, "is a great moral cause and a great strategic goal. The people of Iraq deserve it."

The goal of our invasion of Iraq was not some narrow and self-centered purpose, but rather a lofty one of freeing the Iraqi people from years of oppression. Indeed, the early rhetoric of the war went even further, placing it within the context of a global war on terrorism.


The flip side of this lofty moral purpose is that the enemy, Saddam Hussein, necessarily must be evil. "There is no question," Mr. Bush told a news conference late in 2001, that "the leader of Iraq is an evil man."

Indeed, these two notions need one another: The degree of our goodness is directly proportional to Mr. Hussein's evil. The more evil we paint Mr. Hussein to be (and, to be sure, he was), the more we can cloak ourselves in goodness. If Mr. Hussein were just a run-of-the-mill bad guy (which he also was), we might question our own motives for invading, but if he is evil incarnate, then our justification is clear to all right-thinking people in the world.


In seizing the moral high ground, Mr. Bush staked out a rationale for the invasion of Iraq that resonated deeply with the American psyche. Our political culture is structured on a Puritan legacy of juxtaposing good and evil. We are committed to lofty ideals of liberty, justice and the right of individuals to pursue happiness.

The reality, of course, is that in addition to our love of liberty and justice, we are simultaneously founded on racism, violence and self-interest. Our perceived mission is to bring our praiseworthy values to an oppressed humanity while we rid the world of absolutism, of tyranny, and now, of terror.

While this approach places the United States firmly on the moral high ground, it is not without its dangers. We are on a moral seesaw: The lower our opponents are, the higher we are - and if we start to slip down, our opponents go up. This seesaw has gone up and down in the last several months. With the publication of the photos of prisoner abuse in Iraq, we have seen ourselves begin to slip from the moral high ground. Suddenly, we seemed uncomfortably like them, like the evil from which we were saving the Iraqi people.

Our political culture, it seems, has little tolerance for the nuances and complexities of good and evil. And this helps to explain Mr. Bush's stunning remark on Al-Hurra - the Arabic-language American satellite TV network - that, in reference to the prison scandal, "this is not America."

We, as Americans, might understand the point that torture is not consistent with American ideals. But the point is precisely that Americans did torture other people.

The inability to see moral complexity, both in ourselves and in others, also helps to explain the astounding lack of planning for postwar Iraq. We expected to be welcomed with open arms by dancing in the street, and we assumed that Iraqi enthusiasm for the goodness of our cause would take care of everything else, from governance issues to infrastructure. Seeing ourselves as all good and our enemy as all bad encourages such myopia and undermines the effectiveness of our genuine commitment to laudable ideals.

In the real world, good and evil are not the exclusive possessions of opposing sides. We are all both good and evil, and this realization is the foundation both of self-knowledge and of reconciliation with those whom we have harmed.

To admit our own capacity for evil, moreover, is not to imply that those on the other side are unconditionally good or blameless. They, too, are mixtures of both good and evil. Nor is it to deny our own real goodness. Rather, it is to admit that we are all imperfect creatures, struggling - often quite imperfectly and sometimes even unsuccessfully - to make the world a bit more stable.


Lawrence M. Hinman is director of the Values Institute at the University of San Diego.