Susan Jacoby: Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge; Harper & Row; New York.

Joe McGinniss: Fatal Vision; G. P. Putnam’s Sons; New York.

 These two very different books are linked by a common theme—coping with evil. Jacoby presents a philosophical-historical view of revenge, and a case for its utilization under certain guarded conditions. McGinniss tells the story of Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, the Green Beret doctor who was convicted of murdering his wife and two children. It is a grisly tale presented with all the skills of a first-rate investigative repor­ter. Jacoby approaches her topic in the abstract while McGinniss approaches his in the concrete. Both move onto the stage where man confronts evil.


Contemporary America, based on En­lightenment, Liberal-Democratic pre­cepts, has a problem in coping with evil. History has been basically kind to the American citizenry. We have enjoyed abundant resources, impressive oppor­tunity, and spectacular mobility. During 200 years we suffered only one civil war, our foreign wars have been against weaker foes and, until quite recently, suc­cessful. During the two 20th-century World Wars, while reaping the fruits of victory, we experienced nothing akin to the European casualry rates. Our domes­tic politics has been marked by con­tinuity and legitimacy. The American constitution is the oldest written one in continuous usage and the totalitarian ideologies that have undermined so many political systems have failed to thrive. Our major domestic problem of race and poverty—when placed in ahis­torical and comparative perspective­—seems amenable to solution. Especially indicative of the American success story is the barrage of immigrants seeking legal, quasi-legal, or illegal entry. And America’s most strident domestic critics seldom opt to leave. It might be argued that such success can make a people ob­livious to evil, that it deprives them of a sense of the tragedy of human existence. Have we paradoxically been deprived of spiritual insights allowed less fortunate peoples who have experienced suffer­ing? Were the 19th-century Slavophiles perhaps correct in linking spiritual in­ sight to suffering? The perceptive Sol­zhenitsyn notes how suffering enabled him to recognize evil, to reject the tran­sient, and to embrace genuine traditional values.

To cope with evil, one must first recog­nize it. This involves having a norm of vir­tue/goodness against which to measure suspected evil. Our less secular forebears possessed such a norm and hence were in a position to identify and abjure evil; or if and when they succumbed, they recog­nized their sin. Our secular, relativistic, pluralistic society apparently lacks such a norm. What the ancients labeled as evil, we often label as maladjustment, sick­ness, or perhaps challenge. In contempo­rary American society virtually anything goes if it’s done in the proper style and justified with the proper code terms: doing one’s thing, alternate life-style, questioning authority. What was con­demned yesterday may indeed become chic today—abortion, unisexualism, drugs. Or what is legally denied the masses today, might be openly enjoyed by the adversary cultural elite and the Georgetown cocktail circuit. Recognition of evil is far from a simple task. 

 We live in a society that wants evil to appear unambiguous.  It craves an Arma­geddon with the saints on one side and the demons on the other. It wants our allies to be paradigms of virtue, human rights, and progressive social commitment, and our adversaries to oppose these attributes. Our allies must be without sin and our adversaries without virtue. Our classical and Christian fore­bears knew better. They recognized that neither men nor institutions were sinless and that the most sinful often possessed a strain of virtue. Hence, maneuvering in this world of mixed virtue and vice is not without difficulty and risk.

Even when recognized, evil cannot readily be explained; the relationship be­tween evil and its cause presents prob­lems and opportunities. If one rejects the most logical and natural causal relation­ship, virtually any connection can be construed. To take a pedestrian example: a boy aims a ball and wantonly breaks a window. Those who wish to excuse the boy can blame, among others, the boy’s parents who allowed him out unsuper­vised, the homeowner who railed to guard his house, the politicians who did not provide an accessible playground, the ball manufacturer, or indeed the en­tire society for the environment it created.

The ambiguity associated with causa­tion allows an “out” for the professional activists. It is difficult to pin them down and then to hold them responsible for the ramifications of their doctrines. “Lib­erated” Vietnam offers but one case of causation conjuring. Few Vietnam-era doves accept responsibiliry for the boat people. One would assume that people who endured French, Japanese, and American hegemony without flight must have experienced a vision of hell to their ancestral home. But those who refude to face the reality blame the victims (afraid of an austere life-style), China (encouraging ethnic conflict), or the United States (the cause of all Southeast Asian tragedies). 

 When Marxist-Leninist revolution­ aries secure power, eliminate the non­-orthodox members of the revolutionary coalition, and turn their societies into gulags, inevitably foreign observers emerge who, after reluctantly admitting the reality, attribute it to the opponents of the Marxist-Leninists. The brutalities of the Russian, Chinese, Cuban, and Vietnamese Communist regimes are blamed on their anticommunist adver­saries, which provoked the regimes into taking such actions. 

One of the most pathetic cases of domestic causation-conjuring related to the Kennedy assassination. Virtually everyonbe had a vested interest in avoiding hysteria and, indeed, Johnson handled the succession with grace and prudence. Still, the facts were that the President had been murdered by a military deserter who had absconded to the Soviet Union, had married a Russian, and later involved himself in pro-Cuban lobbying. The facts notwithstanding, some blamed the con­servative city where the crime occurred and the conservative voters who sought greater domestic vigilance. Conserva­tives had somehow created the environ­ment that provoked the gunman.

When evil is recognized and exposed and the causation problem surmounted, a problems of response remains. There exists a spectrum of opportunities and temptations. One can ignore the evil and hope optimistically that it will eventually disappear. One can conveniently place it outside of one’s arena of concern con­tending that it is someone else’s responsi­bility. Thus, generations of Americans recognized the evil involved in racial segregation but assigned responsibility to the “proper” agency and the “proper” time. Was it any surprise that the courts and bureaucracy eventually filled the vacuum?

Many Western Europeans who perceived nazism as evil incarnate hoped that it would moderate with time or that Hitler would turn east to satisfy his territorial lust. Similarly, many contemporaries awaitdespite the overwhelming evidencea communism with a human face and hence acquiesce in communist expansionism. Others fear that too ag­gressive a response could lead to a nu­clear holocaust. A prominent media lawyer has publicly stated his commit­ment never to acknowledge human­ rights violations in the socialist states. This attitude maintains that one can be cognizant of evil but opt to tolerate and soft-pedal it because of the perceived ramifications associated with its expo­sure. One can learn to coexist with it not only out of lethargy, but also because of fear of greater evil stemming from its exposure. Such nonaction is not to be totally despised. Indeed the Burkean precept—better the known than the unknown evil—is not totally lacking in merit. Much depends upon the available alternatives, perceived ramifications, and existing resources. Unfortunately, it is not within the power of any generation to obliterate evil. 

 Another approach to evil involves accepting the reality but urging that it be analyzed objectively, i.e., explained. The evil must be placed in a historical and comparative perspective. It is to be made intelligible and thus to some de­gree forgivable. Thus nazismprobably the most unambiguous 20th-century evilis linked to World War I, the draconian peace, the depression and inflation, the collapse of a state and society. The result is that, evil as nazism was, the people who voted for it emerge less guilty. This same “examining the roots” process is utilized for the more contemporary revolutionary regimes. It involves emphasis on the con­ditions before the revolution: colonial­ism, poverty, socialization in inferiority and cultural contempt. The resulting revolutionary and postrevolutionary barbarities thus appear as reaction to provocation.


In addition to movements, individuals guilty of committing horrendous crimes must be explained. Hence the minute concern with every phase of their activ­ity: toilet training, sexual preference, dietary habits, kinship ties, frustrations, etc. The villain’s movements are pin­pointed with excruciating meticulous­ness; his biography is researched with the diligence reserved for the truly sig­nificant. We probably now know as much about Charles Manson and Captain MacDonald as about many American Presidents.

In contrast to those who ignore evil and those who focus primarily on expla­nation are those who romanticize. Evil possesses an attraction and fascination for such people since it involves a con­tempt for the taboos binding lesser men, a willingness to gamble, and a sense of grandeur. Faust, the Marquis de Sade, and Lucifer himself have never lacked disciples and imitators. The great historical tyrants have their apologists and revision­ists. No doubt someday Hitler will have his admirers who will cite his contempt for bourgeois morality, his skill, his daring, and the scale of his ambition. Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh have already been enshrined in certain pantheons. 

There is a venerable American tradi­ tion of romanticizing evil notables. Many Puritan colonials espoused the doctrine of the Fortunate Fall. Hollywood popular­ ized the legendsof the Westerngunsling­ ers, the Eastern gangsters, and the great robber barons; all of theseflawed heroes “questioned authority” and seized what they wanted without regard for conven­ tional morality or procedural niceties. While their end was usually tragic, their romanticized careers were notwithout redeeming virtues.

The romanticization of evil often as­sumes the form of the cult of violence. The cult usually espouses the belief that society is so corrupt that only violence will redeem. Violence will purify and en­able the evolution of the “new man”: “You must break the eggs to make the omelet”; ”The New Order, like childbirth, must come with blood and pain”; “Every time I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver.” The Byronic leader em­braces violence to destroy the corrupt and to create a purified order. Sorel, the fascists, and the communists have es­ poused some rendition of this myth.

Another approach involves recogni­tion of evil together with a conscious ef­fort to ally with it. This can be justified as a Machiavellian strategy to defeat an even greater evil, e.g., “Better Stalin than Hitler.” Or one forges an alliance with evil supposedly in order to control or moderate it and to seek some higher good. One senses its ascendancy and hopes to limit its impact. Thus many Ger­man democrats supported Hitler’s En­abling Legislation and numerous Euro­pean progressives linked with the com­munists in popular front movements. Today, Marxist-Leninists can always find democrats, social democrats, and nationalists to join national liberation fronts, de­spite the bleak fate suffered by previous Marxist-Leninist collaborators. Despite the best of intentions, alliance with evil involves the risk of corruption or worse.

Finally one can expose, confront, and resist evil. This perhaps is the most difficult course. One risks being labelled a fanatic, a bore, or a Manichean who categorizes everything into simplistic colors of black and white. This course usually entails consequences: the exer­cise is time-consuming, demanding, and will be misunderstood. Often one must break with the conventional wisdom and the spirit of the age. Victory is by no means assured. Many who opted for this response to evil have been canonized as saints, but only long after death.