Evil Disguises Itself As Good, Guilt As Innocence

Thursday, August 4, 2005

If there are a few principal themes that I seek to emphasize in all my writing, one of them surely is the presence of the capacity for great evil in the heart of all societies and all groups, and the fallacy of drawing distinct lines between “good” and “bad” people, friends and enemies. All literary novelists understand this. There are other writers who attain to a similar depth. One of them is the journalist Mark Danner.

This excerpt is from an expanded version of a commencement address given by Mark Danner to the graduates of the Department of English of University of California at Berkeley, May 15, 2005 (published in The New York Review of Books, June 23. Emphasis added.).

“When I was sitting where you [graduates] are sitting now the issue was Central America and in particular the war in El Salvador…[America was] supporting a government in El Salvador that was fighting the war by massacring its own people. I wrote about one of those events in my first book, The Massacre at El Mozote, which told of the murder of a thousand or so civilians by a new, elite battalion of the Salvadoran army—a battalion that the Americans had trained…Looking back at that story…I see now that in part I was trying to find a kind of moral clarity; a place, if you will, where [the] gulf…between what we see and what is said didn’t exist. Where better to find that place than in the world where massacres and killings and torture happen, in the place, that is, where we find evil. What could be clearer than that kind of evil?

“But I discovered it was not clear at all. Chat with a Salvadoran general about the massacre of a thousand people that he ordered and he will tell you that it was military necessity, that those people had put themselves in harm’s way by supporting the guerrillas, and that “such things happen in war.” Speak to the young conscript and he will tell you that he hated what he had to do, that he has nightmares about it still, but that he was following orders…Talk to the State Department official who helped deny that the massacre took place and he will tell you that there was no definitive proof and, in any case, he did it to protect and promote the vital interests of the United States. None of them is lying. I found that if you search for evil, once you leave the corpses behind you will have great difficulty finding the needed grimacing face.”

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