BOSTON -- So what's the deal with the devil anyway? First, Hugo Chavez, the sulfur-sniffing president of Venezuela, calls President Bush the devil. Then, before the air even clears, the Rev. Jerry Falwell is cheerfully and unfavorably comparing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to Lucifer.
At a summit of so-called values voters, Mr. Falwell handicapped a presidential race between Mrs. Clinton and the devil. Nobody, he said, could energize the base like Mrs. Clinton: "If Lucifer ran, he wouldn't."
Mr. Falwell insists this was said "totally tongue-in-cheek," or maybe forked-tongue in cheek.
But have you noticed that when we talk about demonizing our enemies, it's getting awfully literal?
Adolf Hitler used to be the all-purpose, generic bad boy. There's an endless list of people who have been compared, not always favorably, to the Fuhrer. It runs from Bill O'Reilly to Martha Stewart, with stops along the way for terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Not long ago, Sen. Rick Santorum compared the Democrats to Hitler and Sen. Robert C. Byrd compared the Republicans to Hitler. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld even compared Mr. Chavez (see above) to Hitler. And Sen. George V. Voinovich called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a "Hitler type of person," though the Iranian president doesn't even believe in the Holocaust.
Remember when Ronald Reagan talked about the Soviet Union as the "evil empire"? Evil as in d-evil? Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called the United States the "Great Satan." Bob Jones of Bob Jones University once called George H. W. Bush the devil. And George H. W. Bush called Saddam Hussein the devil.
Of course, radical Islamists casually label America "evil" all the time. Osama bin Laden called for a theological war between Muslims and global crusaders - or, rather, "Satan's U.S. troops." President Bush in turn defined North Korea, Iran and Iraq as the "axis of evil" and promised a war to rid the world of evildoers. And let us not forget Pope Benedict XVI, who recently channeled a medieval Byzantine emperor who declared that Islam was "evil and inhuman."
The polarizing language of good and evil, us and them, God and Satan frames a clash of cultures at home and a clash of civilizations abroad. The vocabulary of absolutes freezes the way we think and act. The black-and-white narrative suggests that anybody who doesn't side with us has gone to the dark side.
Good "us" vs. evil "them." This is how a handful of radical Islamic theorists twisted Islam's prohibitions against murder and suicide to justify murder and martyrdom. As Lawrence Wright shows in The Looming Tower, his compelling account of the run-up to 9/11, these radicals redefined every enemy as an apostate. They decided "who was a real Muslim and who was not, who should live and who should die."
In Washington these days, the White House seems to define anyone who disagrees with the president as an apostate, or a "Defeatocrat," or a fool who thinks we can sit down and sing "Kumbaya" with terrorists. They've cast a debate about strategy and tactics as a debate about good and evil. Try talking strategy with a guy talking Satan.
If there is anything Americans should not do, it would be to fall into the rhetorical traps set by the radical Islamists who talk about holy war.
When we resort to nonnegotiable language, we've entered the world of absolutes. And when we fall into the clash of cultures at home and civilizations abroad, all hell breaks loose.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.