The Massacre of the Innocents: Trump and America’s Evil
From engraving of “London”, by William Blake, The Songs of Experience, 1794
by Ed Simon
First Moloch, horrid king, besmear’d with blood/Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears…Their children’s cries unheard, that pass’d through fire/To his grim idol.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667
I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.
—Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785
If your politics are anything like mine, which is to say that you abhor wanton cruelties enacted against children, then surely, you’ve said it, or at least thought it – Donald Trump is an evil man.
That word – evil. A theologian’s word, a churchman’s word, a priest’s word. We might use it in frustration, born out of our sense of defeated helplessness after seeing images of children locked in cages. We use it after looking at the photo of a mother tying her toddler’s shoes in the seconds before being possibly separated forever, both sacrificed upon the altar of white supremacy and its fragile insecurities. We use it when we read about babies being taken from nursing mothers. We use it when we listen to recordings of infants, toddlers, and children crying for their parents, of the terror in voices of stolen families. We use it when we consider that thousands of children in the United States of America are being held hostage by an illegitimate and criminal administration who are using them as a bargaining chip. Scholar Lance Morrow aptly writes in Evil: An Investigation that “evil seems to be offended by the innocence of children, by the promise of children, and takes prime satisfaction in ruining it. There’s a metaphysical effrontery in harming children that evil finds irresistible.” What word then is more adequate than “evil” to describe what the U.S. government is now doing?
Evil. I don’t want you to just use the word. Don’t just use it as rhetorical intensifier. As pressure gage for your own anger. As goad for those who still support these obvious travesties. I don’t want you to use it as metaphor or as exaggeration to express whatever emotions you’re feeling. I want you to deeply, completely, and totally understand it for what it literally means. I want you to grapple with the full implications. I don’t want us to think of this as simply a political issue, or even as simply a moral one. I don’t want us to ever discuss this in terms of “civil discourse,” or “agreement and disagreement.” I don’t want any equivocation, ambiguity, or skepticism to cloud our language, and I do not care about the fragile emotions of people so stupid, craven, or wicked themselves that they have supported such atrocities. I want us to say it clearly and literally. I want us to say it as the theologian would. As the churchman. As the priest. I want us to shout it fully knowing its profound truth. That Jeff Sessions is an evil man. Stephen Miller is an evil man. Donald Trump is an evil man.
Since God’s eclipse, “evil” as a concept has lacked a certain intellectual utility for the so-called learned class. Too often the word is bandied about by those who wish to commit evil, such as with George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” rhetoric. For many on the left “evil” is an antique word, stuffy and reeking of incense, but Morrow argues that there is “not a little smugness in the dismissal of the idea of evil. The dismissers… suggest (smugly) that those who believe in evil, and use terms like evil or evildoers are, in fact, primitives.” We’ve exorcised the demons and the angels went with them. A perilous and stupid strategy which demonstrates our sophistication and resistance towards anything which sounds theological while children are being packed on airplanes and flown to the now hundreds of “Tender Age Detention Camps.” Things may be evil, but we should be proud of the fact that we don’t use such an old-fashioned word to describe it! That we don’t accidentally sound like religious fools! Literary critic Terry Eagleton takes another tact. A Marxist, he reminds us that “there are indeed evil acts and individuals, which is where the soft-hearted liberals and the tough-minded Marxists alike are mistaken.”
If “Evil is the ne plus ultra, the doomsday word,” as Morrow calls it, how do we measure it, how do we describe it, so as to tame it? Theodicy has never been an exact science. The pagan could locate evil’s origin in the multiplicity of conflicting deities, but for the monotheist with their irreconcilable qualities of perfection that they deigned to ascribe to an invented Lord there is a fundamental difficulty in explicating wickedness. As an approach to understanding there is always that obscene, Panglossian rationalism which tries to explain away evil as non-existent, or as function of a greater good. More sophisticated is the negative theodicy of Augustine, for whom evil was never a quality in itself, but merely the absence of good. In The City of God, he writes that “evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil,'” so that evil is like the darkness, simply an absence of light. Augustine provided us with a crucial vocabulary, with an awareness of original sin (that only objectively verifiable theological dictum), and it could be said that his theodicy describes the vast majority of evil at this moment.
Morrow ask “How to judge the degree of complicit evil of those who suspect – and this is how it usually happens – something evil is afoot, and who, by subtle reflect, by a distinct early warning personal radar, sidestep the knowledge of it, avert their gaze, and distance themselves from the immediate circumstances that might require them to act?” Again, Augustine provides answer for this type of evil. It is the evil of when I’d rather not read an account of a Honduran man committing suicide (assuming that’s what actually happened) after ICE agents kidnapped his child. It is the evil that allows me to mentally fade and exhaust at endless horrors like listening to an ICE agent mock a group of crying children. It is the evil that distracts us into focusing on inanities like debating whether Robert De Niro is allowed to say “fuck” or Samantha Bee can say “cunt.” Such evil, as written about by Augustine, is the evil of fatigue, of getting bored. It’s what allowed one interviewee in historian Milton Mayer’s classic account They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-1945 to rationalize that “we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.” Such evil is the most prosaic, banal, human thing in the world, and it infects all of us.
I’m not asking us to wear sack-cloth and rub ashes into our wounds, such contrition is its own luxury. Wisely remember however that distraction is not joy and turning away is not wonder. There is no shame in truthful happiness, in ecstasy, and in fellowship. Poet Jack Gilbert wisely writes that “To make injustice the only/measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” Joy, wonder, and curiosity are rebellions against tyrants, and the devil too. But the narcotic palliative of disinterest is Satan’s very currency, so that I ask you not to reject your own moments of joy, rather I pray for you to acknowledge that ignorance of horror is not the same thing as happiness, and that in genuine love, you find the strength to fight evil. Because though the evil of fatigue, exhaustion, and ignorance is understandable and universal there is no excuse in it or succor for us.
Augustine’s contention about evil being the mere absence of good may work to explain our own sinfulness, our own fallenness. But it does scant to really, truly, completely explain the evil that we intuitively know to exist. Augustine describes my evil and yours, but his language falters when confronted with Sessions’ twisted goblin smile. The bishop’s is a clever little mathematical fiction, a bit of fiddling to make God’s cosmic score-card come out positive. Morrow writes that “When people become frustrated in their effort” to understand evil that “they are inclined to say that because they do not understand evil, it does not exist – a somewhat self-important fallacy based on the thought that what I do not understand cannot be real.” If we confront the enormity of these acts, even and especially while we know there are any number of little sins everyday which we’re all capable of and which facilitate greater wrongs, we also feel that there is a more radical, full, and complete type of evil. If most evil is a shadow, the mere absence of light, then the more radical evil is something else. It’s a dark fire, all heat and no luminescence, and it is anything but the simple absence of something else.
Just listen to the recording of children crying “Mami” and “Papi,” while a Border Patrol Agent jokes “Well, we have an orchestra here… What’s missing is a conductor.” Just listen to a six-year-old Salvadorian child ignored after she pleas “My mommy says that I’ll go with my aunt… and that she’ll come to pick me up there as quickly as possible.” Understand that it’s policy that these children, separated from their parents, are not to be embraced. Understand that some children are so young that they don’t even know their folks’ names, that because of that they may never be reunited with them. Know that Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, in a rhetorical gambit worthy of Joseph Goebbels, claims that they’re possibly separating children from traffickers, an assertion that she knows to be a lie. Know that former Trump campaign adviser Corey Lewandowski feels emboldened and free enough to mock the separation of a terrified ten-year-old with Downs Syndrome from her mother. Know that Donald Trump feels free to call children “animals” and compare them to a plague, the better to justify their treatment and with the ultimate nihilistic logic of the totalitarian eventual extermination. Listen. Understand. Know. Know that such evil is not explicable as the mere absence of good.
This is the language commensurate with our historical moment: words like “sinful,” “wicked,” and “fallen.” And most of all, “evil.” There will be hesitancy to use such language. The American press has only finally gotten comfortable with using the word “lies” to designate lies. The train-tracks to hell are laid with the naivety and irreverence of good faith, decorum, and civility. When you’re faced with genuine and legitimate disagreements it’s fine to acknowledge them as such; when you’re faced with evil you call it what it is. To echo my earlier sentiments, have no truck with the liberal critic who would claim such declarations are hyperbole. Have none with the radical critique of some leftists who would prefer that you simply interrogate the word “evil” for all of its social and cultural history, pretending that it’s a term simply left for a more superstitious time, for whom “evil” doesn’t easily fit into some vulgar schema of base and superstructure. And especially have no trade with the apologists, the traditionalists, the conservatives, the rightists who content to call any trifle which offended their delicate sensibilities as evil, but who now lustily embrace the reality of concentration camps for children. Whether their evil is the result of ignorance or malice is between them and their confessor, because the result is the same. If the word sounds extreme it’s because evil is extreme. I have nothing but disgust for our neighbors, our friends, and our family who deny that such a thing is happening, or pretend that it was someone else’s fault, or in its most honest explication admit that they simply don’t give a shit. Such people embrace the most fallacious reasoning possible to preserve their own sense of self, a narcotic for the moral dwarves of the fallen American Republic. Let them grab their own security blanket, I will get it for them. We call actions by their appropriate designation so that we can give demons their proper names. Morrow writes that “Without an awareness of evil, people become confused; they fail to anticipate its ruthless possibilities.” That intellectual laziness, the sin of lacking an imagination, is what makes people shocked that we are were we are and unable to anticipate where we’ll be in six months or a year.
The philosopher George Steiner has said that “We no longer believe in hell. We have created it here on earth.” Constructed in McAllen, Texas. In Brownsville. In the tent city of Tornillo. Let us commit ourselves to the harrowing of those hells, to the liberation of their innocent prisoners. Let us not flinch at calling evil by its proper name, of identifying its subjects. Evil has a language and a poetry, we must learn to interpret it once again. Eagleton describes evil’s “uncanniness, its appalling unreality, its surprisingly superficial nature, its assault on meaning, the fact that it lacks some vital dimension, the way it is trapped in the mind-numbing monotony of an eternal recurrence.” Understand that ours is an evil age, and we live in an increasingly evil place. And hope, pray, and understand that as Ovid writes in Remedia Amoris, as there are a “thousand forms of evil; there will be a thousand remedies.” In the form of the protestors blocking the ICE detainment center in Portland. In the form of the bishops condemning such wickedness (while they should also be journeying to the sites themselves). In the form of marches to the gates of hell itself, the donations to the immigrant rights groups, the civil and non-violent resistance which I pray will end this shameful period in American history.
The myth of American exceptionality is finally dead; one day if we’re to even scrub an inch of this painful stain off of the nation it will require truth and reconciliation committees, it will requite trials, and the actual imprisonment of the architects of these policies. Trump, Sessions, and Miller deserve to expire in prisons feeling the fear felt by these children and their parents. Most likely, when the time comes, Trump will go out corpulent and satisfied at Mar-a-Lago, living out his days tweeting and bloviating and engorging himself. And if I know anything of my country – and I know something of my country – the press will write about how he was divisive but fresh, polarizing but blunt. And they’ll mitigate his crimes and apologize for his crimes. And what I want you to remember on that day is that any comfort that man received was undeserved, and that he should hope that heaven has no justice. If such sentiments mean I have some kind of malignancy in my soul I’ll accept it, if that means a bit of darkness clouds any of my own goodness I’ll gladly admit that too, while praying that I’ll be free of the malignancy that lets the president laugh at children’s tears.
Author Disclaimer: Though this piece was finished right before Trump’s executive order to end a policy of his own making, I still agree with everything written, perhaps even more so. That the president would stage such cruelty as an act of political theater only underscores his nihilism. That some previous critics are congratulating him, especially as many experts believe that the new policy could create monstrous repercussions of its own, also underscores my point about the necessity to stay focused on the task at hand and to not be distracted by this administration’s tactics.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. His writing regularly appears at sites like The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Salon, LitHub, The Millions, and several others. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books later this year. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, or at his website.