The difference between good and evil seemed straightforward when I was a child. Call it what you will: the Judeo-Christian ethical code, the Golden Rule . . .
As a Jewish kid growing up during World War II, I thought the world had only one set of evil people: the Nazis. I learned to revere those Americans who died in that war, who fought not only for us but for the Jews of Europe. I didn’t ponder the role of Stalin’s army, or where an ally like Stalin might fall in my simplistic good-versus-evil mental filing system; and that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor didn’t figure much in my parents’ or grandparents’ thoughts, much less mine.
On Monday, Memorial Day, I will again remember those Americans who sacrificed their lives, but my absolutist understanding of good and evil has considerably changed. Although nations do sometimes sway, in mysterious ways, toward one or the other, as an adult, I certainly don’t think any country has a monopoly on either.
The United States is one of the most religious countries in the developed world. According to Wikipedia, a 2002 study by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found the U.S. to be “the only developed nation . . . where a majority of citizens reported that religion played a ‘very important’ role in their lives, an attitude similar to that found in its neighbors in Latin America.”
With Memorial Day approaching, I have been wondering what American children, these days, are being taught by their religious elders about how to do good in the world. I think about the men and women we have sent to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And about Abu Ghraib (where a few of those men and women committed acts of humiliation and inhumanity). We know that the violent exigencies of fighting in a war have extreme effects on those who take part, but can they destroy a soldier’s gut understanding of right and wrong?
The killing of Osama bin Laden on May 1 probably will be heralded in speeches on Memorial Day as a victory against evil. However we personally received the news of his death (relief, jubilation, fear), we should not because of it be tricked into condoning the “harsh” interrogation of alleged Al Qaeda prisoners — waterboarding, for example — on the theory that torture led to a tip about Bin Laden’s whereabouts.
We are also apt to praise the Central Intelligence Agency for tracking down Bin Laden. But we should not forget that since 2001 the C.I.A. has hidden and interrogated alleged terrorists in secret prisons from Afghanistan to Thailand and has engaged in what is called “rendition,” sending prisoners to Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, where human rights activists report torture has been routine.
A terrible World War II image of Jews crowded into railroad cars on their way to concentration camps came to my mind’s eye when I read recently that in the winter of 2001 “Afghan generals” with whom the U.S. was allied crowded so many captives into metal containers that some died of asphyxiation.
It is time for the United States to dedicate itself to a document it signed in 1994: the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. To do so would be a true memorial to those Americans who have died for liberty, on American soil, in Europe, and beyond.