August 10, 2010


I’ve just finished reading a novel by Richard Clarke, his first, called The Scorpion’s Gate. Normally he writes non-fiction. His best seller, Against All Enemies, deals with his experiences in the Middle East while he served in military and national security positions under three presidents. Since retiring, he’s provided commentaries on network television and writes a column in the New York Times magazine. It’s hard to quarrel with his credentials so I was intrigued by a statement on the novel’s jacket:

                   Sometimes you can tell more truth through fiction.  

I can’t say that after reading Clarke’s novel I’m closer to the truth about the Middle East than I was before I picked up his book. What I did see were moments that looked like truth, when the curtain parted to provide a glimpse of how people in power can be corrupted by it. The corrosion begins when leaders believe the public interest is best served when the public is kept ignorant. It’s a pretty god-like position from which to act. 

Charles Taylor, former ruler of Liberia, on trial at The Hague for war crimes, is the latest example of someone accused of taking a god-like view. He is charged with interfering in the politics of another country, Sierra Leone, and supporting a genocidal war that devastated that nation. If true, I wonder what Charles Taylor thinks as he listens to the testimony of victims who were tortured or mutilated as a result of his actions. What good intention did he imagine he was pursuing at the time?

I don’t raise the question facetiously. I’ve yet to hear anyone who has been corrupted by power admit he committed his crime for the exercise of power only. Such people always claim a higher purpose. And so they must. Otherwise, the truth would be too great to bear. They would be forced to see that the excesses of their cruelty put them beyond the bounds of what it is to be human. Having become monsters, they descend to a phylum far below that of the world’s most vicious predators. Lions and tigers slash and tear for a single purpose: to survive.  

Why do these demons exist among us?  I’m not sure. I do believe evil begins when an individual imagines he knows more than the rest of us. The sin becomes magnified when that individual finds an opportunity to act on his belief.

The slender thread that links good and evil tends to be invisible. But the link is real. We cannot know one without knowing the other. To blind ourselves to this symbiotic relationship is to court danger.

The monster lurks in all of us. To deny that is to lose our compassion. 

Fiction allows us to touch the heart of darkness and to learn without being threatened. That is its gift. That is its truth.