Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Is President Bush evil?

Bloggers on the left of the political spectrum often assert that President George "Dubya" Bush is evil. To some extent, I am sympathetic to that point of view.

Like most Canadians, I disagree with the decision to invade Iraq. The original justification for going to war — i.e., that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction — was proved to be without merit. Meanwhile, attention and resources were deflected from the real enemy:  the loose network of terrorists who were responsible for 9/11 and subsequent atrocities (e.g. in Madrid and London).

The Iraqi people were delivered from Saddam Hussein's tyrannical rule, and a democratic election was held. But thousands of Iraqi non-combatants were killed in the process. The ongoing American presence is interpreted as an occupation, eliciting violent resistance, and American casualties mount steadily. The Americans and their allies have been unable to restore order and make life tolerable for the Iraqis.

In sum, it is arguable that George Bush and his advisors have screwed up, big time. But "evil" is very strong language, and I doubt it is warranted in this instance.

Recently, I made a comment on Snaars' blog that immediately called forth a rebuttal. (Snaars, I hope you don't mind that I've decided to address the issue on my blog. I'd like to broaden the discussion to include my regular readers, who will certainly be interested.)

Snaars' original post, Minority Me (which is quite interesting in its own right) had nothing to do with the war in Iraq or George Bush's presidency. I made a tangential remark, "I do not think Bush is evil in the way Hitler was evil."

To me, this seemed a perfectly unobjectionable assertion. But one of Snaars' regular readers took issue with it:
Why is hitler made out to be this evil that is so astronomical that in today's society individual's can't compare? … I think evil is as evil is. I think the fact that our defense secretary said that torture was ok to use in abu grave was evil. …

My point is not that bush is more evil then hitler, but i certainly would not want to say it isn't possible … I just want to keep my eyes open, and it is difficult right now because i feel like i'm in the same position as a german during the beginings of World War Two.
I should note that I respond sympathetically to the last sentence of the comment. The writer is deeply concerned about the direction his country is headed and, as an American, he feels personally responsible for it. He speaks for many other Americans who are similarly distressed. Their distress shows in their readiness to characterize President Bush as evil.

I responded, in part, by emphasizing the vast scope of Hitler's atrocities. Hitler not only killed six million Jews in a methodical attempt to exterminate that race. He also killed gypsies, homosexuals, communists, trade unionists, people with physical or mental infirmities, and any German who dared to oppose his absolutist rule. In addition to that, he invaded and/or bombed a series of neighbouring European nations in a bloody attempt to establish an empire.

Abu Ghraib notwithstanding, President Bush simply isn't in the same league as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and the very few others who arguably belong in that elite category. I reach this conclusion based solely on the scope of the atrocities committed by these men.

But we still haven't answered the question, Is President Bush evil? To address the question directly, we have to define the term. What do mean, "evil"?

I'd like to introduce a distinction drawn from the field of criminal law. In law, behaviour is not considered criminal unless two criteria are met. It isn't enough merely to commit the prohibited act (actus reus); one must also have the intention (or guilty mind, mens rea).

Arguably, President Bush has made some terrible decisions with horrific consequences. We might go so far as to say that he has committed the evil act (actus reus). But has he done so intentionally? Does he have the second characteristic, the guilty mind? I hesitate to go so far in my criticism of his presidency.

Admittedly, there is one consideration which gives me pause. It seems to me that President Bush knowingly lied to the American people, and the rest of the western world, with respect to the justification for going to war in Iraq. A growing body of evidence suggests that the administration did not just exaggerate the facts, but actively sought a pretext for the invasion, and ultimately invented such a pretext.

If so, this deliberate misrepresentation of the facts was truly evil, in my view:  an instance where President Bush possessed the guilty mind in conjunction with the guilty act. This is a grave offence, when a democratic leader lies to the electorate on a life-and-death issue.

But that is the only case in which I am prepared to go so far. And even in that case, I wonder what President Bush would say in his own defence if we could have an honest and open dialogue on the subject — without political posturing. Presumably he thought the invasion of Iraq was justified, even if the private reason differed from the public pretext. In other words, he still didn't knowingly set out to do evil.

In general, I do not believe we can judge people's motives based on media reports. This is particularly true in the present climate, where objectivity is a forgotten virtue and even journalists seem to divide along ideological lines.

I would encourage people to be more circumspect in their language, but I suspect it's futile. I recognize that measured and nuanced positions are ineffectual in the current political climate. It's necessary to use inflammatory language, if you want anyone to pay any attention.

And that causes me deep concern for the future of democracy as a viable system of governance. But there I go again, off on another tangent.

[cross posted on The Art of the Rant]

19 Comments:

At 1:35 PM, July 13, 2005, Blogger The Misanthrope said...

I wouldn't say that there is an elite category of evil, but certainly a hierarchical order and the names you mention are in the top five Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, and if I thought about I could round it out. As much as I despise Bush and his gang, I do not think they are evil. They are dead wrong and have caused enormous damage to our country. If the world were truly fair they would be on trial for possible war crimes since they attacked unprovoked.

 
At 1:57 PM, July 13, 2005, Blogger Carolyn said...

Is Bush evil? I certainly think he's a jackass and misguided by his cabinet, but evil?

I think there are two things that he's most guilty of...1)Being a coward, and 2)Letting his religious and moral views guide his decisions politically (ever hear of seperation of church and state?).

I feel that the media has a lot to do with what we're informed of...the times were different in the times of Hitler. I probably don't have the stomach to know exactly what's happening to the Iraqi people, but I do know that those types of things happen in war...from all sides.

The bigger issue is whether we should actually be there in war at all. No, I don't think we should, but I don't think Bush was acting with evil intentions when he sent American men and women over there. Though I despise him, I think he is a very feeble-minded man who has difficulties making decisions on his own. I think he's scared of not acting "enough" and therefore may have over acted. He doesn't make any decisions without consulting his crew...they're all responsible.

And one more issue that's been on my mind lately...why haven't Americans acted more to protest against our leader? During Vietnam there was a draft and the war was much more present in people's daily lives because their loved ones were forced into the military. We're so comfortable and safe in the knowledge that we won't be drafted so there's not enough opposition for Bush to consider he's doing the wrong thing.

My basic feelings are that Bush would rather not have people get hurt, and now he's in over his head. His approval rate is low and many Americans are trying to coast through the next few years.

 
At 3:51 PM, July 13, 2005, Anonymous Fan of the English Language said...

I'm impressed you were able to see past that commenter's outrageously poorly written post to the content beneath. Good for you, Q! I counted thirteen spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors in those two paragraphs, ten if you don't include his/her colloquial use of ellipses. I further assume that "evil is as evil is" was supposed to read "...as evil does".

However, as you noted, his point is well taken, however poorly expressed.

 
At 4:15 PM, July 13, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

Q,

You inspired a post. I thought that this was well done. We have some areas in which we disagree,but that is ok. The world is a better place with different ideas.

I haven't seen a thing that would justify calling Bush evil. He is simple not in that category.

Carolyn you said something that caught my eye and I wanted to remark upon them.

One, I am curious why you consider Bush to be a coward and what difference you think that makes.

You also said this:

.why haven't Americans acted more to protest against our leader?

There is a lot of apathy in the country, but even so, there are people out there who do not see the need. What kind of protest are you searching for?

There are always things going on.

 
At 4:34 PM, July 13, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

I'm just popping in to let all of you know that I've been reading your comments. For now, I'm letting the thread run without intervening. This is such a complex topic, there is room for a wide spectrum of viewpoints.

Jack, I'm pleased that I inspired a post on your blog. Thanks for giving me the air time.
Q

 
At 5:16 PM, July 13, 2005, Blogger Carolyn said...

Jack's Shack,

From my personal perspective, I view Bush as a coward. I think he makes decisions out of pressure and out of what he thinks other people would want. If you were to go back and review his personal and business accomplishments throughout his life, I don't think he stands out as a great businessman, great law follower, or great role model.

And as far as American's not "protesting against our leader", almost half the country didn't vote for his re-election. When all this war business began, there were a few paltry demonstrations...and then they went away. With this said, I also realize that more than half DID in fact vote for him. I'm not expecting any sort of opposition from them, but almost half is a lot to vote against.

I'm not "searching" for any sort of uprising (I'm a little too granola to want that), but there seems to be SO many issues that Bush is affecting, it's tearing apart many social service networks and agencies...it's making life a lot worse for the "have nots"...who also have less power to be heard.

Anyway, I appreciate your comment, whether you agree with me or not (clearly you don't).

 
At 5:19 PM, July 13, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

I don’t think Bush is evil, but I think he has difficulty determining the best interest of the state.

I do suspect that Bush believes that what he is doing is in the best interest of the state.

If as you state "A growing body of evidence suggests that the administration did not just exaggerate the facts, but actively sought a pretext for the invasion, and ultimately invented such a pretext" then there is Guilt.

However, I think that the guilt does not weigh heavily on the presidents mind, as he sees the decision to go to war (even on trumped up excuses) as justified. He may have believed that there were weapons of mass destruction and refused to accept evidence to the contrary because he found that implausible considering Sadam's previous behaviour.

It has been pointed out before in this Blog, and I believe on Q's Blog that Bush appears to be an absolutist. Given this fact and the history of dictatorships, I believe Bush would inevitably see any dictator as a potential military threat. It would be inconceivable to Bush that Sadam would not pursue military aggression and thus would have to have weapons of mass destruction.

This to some, might be evidence of Bush's stupidity, however if you look at things with the eyes of a fanatical patriot (to democracy over dictatorships), you may be able to justify just about anything. Much as we would like to see Bush as Stupid or Evil, I suspect he is neither. I suspect his decisions are those of a misguided zealot. A Zealot driven by what he believes to be the best interest of the state.

The comparison to Hitler is a bit absurd, as Hitler it seems was driven by hate. Removing the power of Jews was not enough he wanted to exterminate them. I do not think that Hitler really believed that the best interests of the state were served by the extermination of the Jews. What harm would Jews be to the state after the Reich had reduced them to penniless, vagrants with no civil rights? I think his intent was to do something he knew was wrong because it would exact revenge with the knowledge that no one would stop him. The minimal but nonetheless apparent attempt to hide the concentration camps leads me to think that Hitler was aware that his actions were wrong. That is true evil.

The idea that concerns me is, that it has been suggested that Bush instigated the war because he personally felt attacked by Sadam Hussein's rhetoric. This would be evidence that his decision was driven by hate. Given Bush's tendency to speak without considering the consequences, he may be a more passion driven person than we know, and this would give credence to this argument.

If this were the case then this would sway my vote over to the idea of Bush being Evil. That said, I think that argument is weak.

While I agree that Q was justified in critiquing the argument that Bush is similar to Hitler, Fan of the English Language is Guilty of an Ad Hominem attack by his/her comment on his poor English and grammar. If as Fan states “his point is well taken, however poorly expressed,” then to what benefit was pointing out his/her poor grammar.

Given my personal problem with English Grammar, I suspect this post will bring on the next critique.

 
At 9:10 PM, July 13, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

The biggest surprise to me, so far, is that no one has opposed my thesis; no one has argued that Bush is, in fact, evil.

Allow me to play devil's advocate, and introduce a new wrinkle. Sometimes, people are convicted of a crime even if they do not exhibit the "guilty mind" I discussed in my post.

Instead, these individuals show evidence of reckless conduct. For example, imagine a man who fires a gun near a crowded bus stop, and kills someone. When he is arrested, he explains that he only meant to hit a telephone pole. A court might conclude there is no evidence of intent, but still convict the man of a crime (likely manslaughter rather than murder) because his behaviour was reckless.

Courts will sometimes introduce the concept of a "reasonable person" as a kind of yardstick. A reasonable person would have foreseen the danger of firing a gun near a crowded bus stop.

You can see where the argument is headed. Does it change anyone's perspective with respect to President Bush? Does it make him guilty where you previously deemed him not guilty, or evil where you previously deemed him not evil?
Q

 
At 10:37 PM, July 13, 2005, Blogger aaron said...

One of the things that confuses me in such threads as this one is something that's assumed, namely, that everyone agrees on the definition of the term "evil." I'm not trying to be obtuse, but q, what do you mean by this term?

The first two synonyms m-w.com comes up with in its definition of the term are sinful and wicked, i.e., the concept of evil is almost Biblical in nature, and a judgment on the individual's character. To me, the term evil isn't associated with a simple crime where mens rea, together with the act itself, is at issue. IMHO, a person could not be considered evil unless either (a) s/he commits a singular act that's both grand in scope and devoid of moral basis (e.g., genocide); or (b) s/he commits any number of significant acts devoid of moral basis, although none of them are necessarily so grand in scope as something in (a).

In my book, Bush lied to justify the invasion. That being said, I think that he honestly believed that a collateral effect of invading Iraq is that the Iraqi people would be in better shape than if Saddam remained in power. Using my understanding of the term evil, I'm not sure it's possible that someone can be recklessly evil, which is what you suggest in your most recent post.

Thus, I have a hard time seeing how Bush can be considered evil, even though I think he's an awful president, and that he'd probably do a better job if he designed policy by throwing blindfolded at a dartboard.

 
At 12:28 AM, July 14, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

Carolyn,

I don't like the idea of living in a homogenized society, I like multiple thoughts and ideas. It is healthy. There is room for disagreement with acrimony, although I certainly have been guilty of not following that line of thought.
From my personal perspective, I view Bush as a coward. I think he makes decisions out of pressure and out of what he thinks other people would want.

That is too general for me, I like specifics. And I don't necessarily think that you have described him as being all that different from many people.

There are a lot of politicians who refuse to make a move without checking which way the wind blows.

And I think that if you look at many of the things he has done with president he has taken action. When push comes to shove the blame/acclaim stops at his desk.

I appreciate your elaborating about what kind of protest you were referring to because I was curious. I am not real impressed with his domestic policies, but frankly I am not as disturbed by his foreign as I could be.

In my view he is willing to do what he thinks is right regardless of consequence. That is not cowardly. It is not always smart either.

Q,

At best I think that you could accuse Bush of being reckless. I agree with the person who says that Bush acts a bit like a zealot and that can be very good and very frightening, it all depends on what side of the fence that you sit on.

 
At 8:57 AM, July 14, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Jack:

A quick correction, for Carolyn's sake. You write, "There is room for disagreement with acrimony"; I assume you meant, "without acrimony".
Q

 
At 10:41 AM, July 14, 2005, Blogger Carolyn said...

Jack's Shack,

Thanks for the reply. I agree that different views and opinions are healthy...there would be not weight on issues if everyone agreed...issues would "just be" without debate, sharing of ideas, etc.

I happen to be pretty far left on the fence and I can sometimes be very passionate and defensive when discussing Bush (my father and I don't discuss politics anymore...he's cancelling out my vote while cheerfully sitting pretty far to the right).

I think it's ok for me to think Bush is a coward, and part of that opinion comes from where I personally feel his motivations are coming from. I struggle with views and decisions that are made from a religious standpoint (one might say, and has said, from a zealot). I think to be guided by religion in matters of the state is reckless, and does not fairly represent the priorities of the people.

I know that I can't change anything on a large scale. I just have hope that the future will have a more caring, world-view oriented approach and that we won't be scorned by other countries for our self-involved manner in world politics.

 
At 10:43 AM, July 14, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Aaron addresses a fundamental issue in his comment: i.e., the definition of evil. I identified it as such in my post but I didn't follow through with a full definition.

You're right, Aaron, we have assumed that everyone agrees on the definition of the term. You comment, the concept of evil is almost Biblical in nature, and a judgment on the individual's character.

I would be surprised if anyone disagreed with your definition to that point. I would express it this way: evil is something more than mere incompetence. "Evil" is a judgement on a person's character, a judgement that s/he is guilty of immorality.

The distinction I introduced between actus reus and mens rea was intended to help people pull those two things apart. President Bush may have made some very bad decisions, and evil may have resulted from those decisions, but that still only amounts to incompetence. We can't reach the conclusion that he is evil unless he knowingly chose to behave immorally.

In sum, I think you've been too tough in your criticism of my original post. I think people were working from a common understanding of evil, and I think the distinction I introduced from criminal law might have helped people to think through the issue.

You refine your definition by saying that evil is something more than garden-variety wrong-doing. (That's a paraphrase, obviously.) It takes one extreme wrong (e.g. genocide) or a consistent pattern of relatively small wrongs to warrant the conclusion that someone is evil.

If we follow your logic, we might conclude that President Bush is "bad" rather than "evil". Both terms constitute a negative judgement on someone's character, the distinction between them being a difference in severity.

So now people have three alternatives to consider: incompetent, bad (in the moral sense of the word), and evil.

As a further alternative, I've suggested that President Bush may not have actually intended to do wrong, but he has behaved so recklessly as to amount to the same thing.

As ever, my primary concern is to help people think through the issues: not to tell people what to think. By making use of the various categories we have identified, people may be able to criticize (or defend) Bush's presidency more precisely.
Q

 
At 10:53 AM, July 14, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

Q,

You are correct about that, "without" should have been included.

Carolyn,

I used to be pretty far to the left but I consider myself much more of a independent centrist now. I agree with positions taken by both Democrats and Republicans because I look at things individually.

I felt like I was pushed into this place by both parties because in truth they both disappoint me.

Too little altruism and too much selfishness.

I struggle with views and decisions that are made from a religious standpoint (one might say, and has said, from a zealot). I think to be guided by religion in matters of the state is reckless, and does not fairly represent the priorities of the people.

I am a Jewish kid from LA. I am not interested in a theocracy and I am not real comfortable with many of the positions of the evangelical crowd. I have some fundamental disagreements with Dubya's religious choices and can appreciate your sentiments.

Because I would not want a Jewish president to rely solely on religious beliefs for guidance.

All that being said I don't think that there is a way to completely remove religion and its influence on a person's thoughts.

The combination does not have to result in a bad mix.

 
At 11:08 AM, July 14, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

I've deleted a comment from LaBona. Friend, you're welcome to come here and join in our dialogue. But this is the second time you've dropped by just to advertise your own site.

I don't host advertisements on my blog — not Google's, and not yours.
Q

 
At 2:20 PM, July 14, 2005, Blogger Carolyn said...

As a side comment: I thought of this blog and the discussions on it last night as I was driving home. As I drove past a St. Louis parochial high school, the message board by the drive-way said, "We may not always see eye to eye, but we should still walk hand in hand".

There's my nugget of wisdom derived by a religious source for the day.

 
At 2:37 PM, July 14, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thanks, Carolyn. I visited your blog earlier this afternoon; you had an uplifting drive home!

I'm pleased that you thought of my blog during the drive.
Q

 
At 4:59 PM, July 18, 2005, Blogger Ian said...

Hey, I like your blog. Epically the discussion. It's refreshing to see an intellectual blog, rather then all the gossipy ones you find these days.

 
At 8:53 AM, July 19, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thanks, Ian. Much of the credit for the quality of the dialogue goes to my fellow bloggers, of course. They're an ornery lot; they insist on having opinions of their own.

I found your vision statement for 2020 online, and I wish you success.
Q

 

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