Let us be clear.
Since we are to live with George W. Bush for another four years, and since he is a self-avowed man of clarity, and since he wishes us always to know what he stands for, let us be clear what it is that George Bush stands for.
He stands for evil.
There is a single word that describes what George W. Bush and his administration have been doing and promise to continue doing, and that word is “evil.” When judged by the objective standards of morality that apply to our complex and dangerous world, Bush and his followers fare poorly. Their actions are immoral, irresponsible, reckless, malicious, unethical, and unreasonable—in a word, “evil.”
Evil comes in many forms. There is active malice and there is callous indifference. There are are wrongful ends, but there are also unjustified means. Arrogance, selfishness, cowardice, and stupidity can all give rise to deeds that we condemn as wrongful. What is perhaps remarkable about Bush is that he manages to act immorally in so many of these different ways.
The act for which he most seeks history’s approval—the invasion of Iraq—is also the pinnacle of his immorality. A hundred thousand Iraqis and a thousand American soldiers are dead today who would be alive had there been no invasion. George W. Bush killed them; he set in motion an invasion whose predictable consequences included their deaths. He is a hundred and one thousand times a murderer.
Against this grim toll may be offset the consequential goods that flowed from the invasion. But those consequences, taken all in all, make the invasion worse, not better.
First, the supposed ties between the Iraqi government and al Qaeda terrorists. The president knew or should have known that such ties were fictional. A corporate officer who made such unfounded claims could be convicted of securities fraud; the “CEO president” lives with neither the managerial competence nor the accountability of a real CEO. The many lies of this president and his administration are offenses, too, offenses both against the moral duty of truthfulness to others and against the moral duty of preserving the institutions of democracy.
Second, the security interest of the United States in avoiding the proliferation of dangerous weapons has been harmed, not helped, by the invasion. The supposed vast stores of nuclear pre-weaponry turned out to be chimerical, a truth that once again Bush was in the best position of any of us to know, but one that he once again chose to avoid and to conceal. Instead, the chaos of the invasion resulted in the looting of vast stores of high explosives and other conventional weapons, munitions that are now being used in acts of terrorism against civilians and against American soldiers. A distant and receeding threat has become one being used against us daily.
It is true that deposing Saddam Hussein was an effective way to end whatever desire he had for obtaining nuclear weapons. But deposing has only led other nations with such desires, including ones led by mentally unstable and openly hostile leaders, to redouble their efforts to secure their arsenals before the U.S.’s baleful gaze turns their way. And when it comes to nuclear materials reaching the hands of terrorists, Bush and his agents have been astonishingly negligent in securing Soviet stockpiles and in the other less glamorous but more critical basic work of nuclear nonproliferation. To fail so seriously at such an important responsibility that one assumed voluntarily—this too is a form of evil. It is the evil of betrayal, of the breach of a grave and solemn trust. Dante would assign Bush to the ninth circle of Hell, together with Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, who also betrayed their benefactors.
But Saddam was evil, comes the cry, and so toppling him was good. That he was acting evilly is indisputable, but there is room for more than one kind of evil in this world. One act of justice against a hundred thousand deaths does not make a balance. And as for Iraq and the fate of the Iraqis, the government that they are likely to wind up with across the next decade (or, perhaps, the lack of government) may well prove to be worse. Hobbes had a point: people far far prefer the depradations of Leviathan to the brutality of unrestrained anarchy. Ba’athism was not warlordism or Islamic theocracy. If you’re going to topple a dictatorship in the name of democracy, you don’t get the moral credit unless you actually establish democracy.
The familiar slippage between the ‘war in Iraq’ and the ‘war on terror’ to which Bush is prone is an attempt to whitewash the moral squalor of the invasion with a coating of self-defense. But “war on terror” as Bush practices it fails every component of the legal and moral test for self-defense, which requires that violence be both unavoidable and proportional to the threat to be prevented.
The main tactics of “war on terror,” so named, and as practiced by Bush and his deputies, have been straightforwardly criminal and blatantly wrong. There is no way to justify the barbaric practices of Abu Ghraib or the indiscriminate carelessness of Guantanamo Bay. The mindset that makes such abuses possible is the one that sets the moral rights of “them” at nothing. These abuses are the product of a deep selfishness and unconcern for others. They are evil incarnate.
At home, the economic policies of Bush and his allies are immoral too: they are the abdication of responsibility, the abuse of one’s powers of stewardship. The giveaways of the recent corporate tax bill were an insult to basic norms of distributive justice. The repeal of the inheritance tax was a direct attack on egalitarianism and individual opportunity. The policy of disguising long-term tax benefits to wealthy investors as short-term economic stimulus counts as a lie. But it is a lie with real harm; it interfered with attempts to pass a genuine stimulus package and it disguised the seriously regressive effects of the Bush pacakge. To Aquinas, then, Bush’s lies over his first round of tax cuts (and over the Medicare bill, and so much else) would count as mortal sins.
It is easy to multiply examples. The continuing destruction of the earth’s natural environment is a grievous wrong against future generations. Death sentences are usually murder. The administration seems incapable even of using free markets for overall good, despite its ideological claims to love markets. The Medicare drug benefit plan, the media ownership rules, the energy plan—these are all cases of deliberate market perversion designed to enrich a lucky few at the expense of genuine competition. Free markets can do enormous good; but the Bush administration does not do good. It does evil.
Even in those few areas where Bush Republicans are inclined to treat the world “morality” as applicable, their actions these past four years have been profoundly immoral. The campaign against homosexuality, gay marriage, and civil unions is raw bigotry. This hatred, which Bush and his allies have been happy to fuel and to harness, cannot even be written off as selfishness or cowardice, the way so much of his foreign and economic policy can. No, it is a pure malevolence, a desire to deprive others of basic human rights, dignity, and fundamental legal protections out of a sheer desire to condemn people who have themselves done nothing wrongful. Call this hatred by its true name: gratuitous evil.
Or take reproductive rights, that other famous site of conservative “moral” outrage. Judge politicians and policies by their effects: the abortion rate fell under Clinton and has risen under Bush. On their own terms, Bush’s abortion policies have been moral failures.
Those terms, however, are themselves immoral. They value a small multi-cellular organism above a living person with memories, friends, plans, emotions, and reason. Their insistence on “life!” without inquiry into the details of that life would sooner have an unwanted child born into a family ill-equipped to take care of it than a wanted child born later into a family far better able to set it along the road to a happy and purposeful life. Their opposition to birth control technologies, an opposition which has awful effects for actual people, especially those living in extreme poverty, cannot be defended with reference to any objective set of moral criteria. And the stem-cell debacle illustrates further how morally bankrupt is a system of “morality” which prizes embryos over people.
George W. Bush is engaged in evil acts on a vast scale. Others may be more depraved, others may cause more suffering with their own hands, others may be more directly more misanthropic and malevolent, but no one else in the world has the power he does, which means that no one else actually accomplishes as much evil as George W. Bush does. He and his comrades-in-arms are the greatest cause of morally wrong effects in the world. To support him is to be complicit in this evil. To participate in carrying out his schemes is to have evil on your own hands. Opposition to Bush is a moral duty, one that applies to every American.
Those serving in government have a special obligation to moderate his policies and to restore the competence in execution his actions have lacked. This obligation does not necessarily require self-sacrifice; the question is what will do the most good. Sometimes, that will be civil disobedience; sometimes, it will be resignation in protest; more often, it will be serving as a wiser head and hoping to prevail. But the obligation still exists: if you serve in a Bush administration, it is your job to try to return a moral compass to an administration that is acting utterly without regard for right or wrong.
Once again, let us be clear. This is a moral obligation. George W. Bush stands for lawlessness, immorality, and evil. In his terms, he is a sinner, a prideful and unrepenetant one—and every time he sins, the entire world pays the price. Opposition to Bush is the only moral option.