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Evil is in the Eye of the Beholder

24 February 2002

One of the most dangerous things about viewing the world on a black-and-white screen is how easily it leads to the reduction of human beings to objects.

In no time at all, real people, who eat, drink, sleep, dream, fall in love, have babies and mourn their dead, become the Other, the Stranger, and then, just Them. They lose their faces, their souls, their history, their redeeming value and possibly - as some of the deadliest regimes have shown - their right to take up oxygen in the space they share with Us.

George W. Bush is a long way from such virulent vision. But it is obvious that his global viewing screen is not only limited to black-and-white images, it is like that of so many men before him: a tiny screen indeed.

From this perspective, villains pop up and beg to be smashed as though one's nation were playing some international game of Whack-a-Mole. The humanity of millions of people who live under the rule of such villains is paid lip service. But if those people do not accept the total demonization of their leader (and get rid of him), they must naturally become Them, deserving of whatever the Us powers deem appropriate.

Last week, during his visit to South Korea, Bush's eyes were glued to his little screen. In the company of President Kim Dae Jung, he spoke protectively of the North Korean people, repeatedly invoking the word "freedom" to explain why he called North Korea part of an "axis of evil."

"I said that because of freedom," he said. "I love freedom."

Bush ticked off a list of repressive policies and deprivations and hung them 'round the nasty pencil-neck of communist North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

(That all of those transgressions also apply to the United States' new best friend, China, is another story for another time.)

Said Bush: "I will not change my opinion on the man, on Kim Jong Il, until he frees his people . . . until he proves to the world that he's got a good heart, that he cares about the people that live in his country."

In the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea, the view shifted. Kim Jong Il was no longer so distinct from his people - or from North Koreans who existed 25 years ago. U.S. Army officials had told Bush about a "peace museum" on the other side of the border in which an ax, used to kill two American soldiers in 1976, was on display.

"No wonder I think they're evil," he snarled.

It would never occur to the U.S. commander-in-chief that some people might react to at least one piece of U.S. war memorabilia in a similar way. Say, a Japanese survivor of Hiroshima or Nagasaki who happens upon the Enola Gay exhibit that will open next year at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

According to the institute's Web site, visitors will be able to look inside the totally restored B-29 and "just below the fuselage, see an atomic bomb casing very similar to the 'Little Boy' weapon used on the Hiroshima mission."

As with a three-year partial exhibit of the famous plane (which drew more than 4 million visitors), a large photograph will be featured of "the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima as seen from the tail-gunner's position on the Enola Gay."

The accompanying text explains:

"That bomb and the one dropped on Nagasaki three days later destroyed much of the two cities and caused tens of thousands of deaths. However, the use of the bombs led to the immediate surrender of Japan and made unnecessary the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands. Such an invasion, especially if undertaken for both main islands, would have led to very heavy casualties among American and Allied troops and Japanese civilians and military."

Is it so hard to imagine that some people might be troubled by that? Or by an equation in which tens of thousands of dead Japanese men, women and children are a "however," but two dead U.S. soldiers are proof of "evil"?

As long as you view the scene on a little black-and-white set, it's not only hard, it's impossible.

Stephanie Salter
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle © 2002 San Francisco Chronicle

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