Like many American teenage boys, I grew up listening to heavy metal music. In 1989, a favorite album was “Kill’em All” by Metallica and my favorite song on that album was “Am I Evil?” (a cover of a song by the British metal act Diamondhead). Metallica pondered in the chorus: “Am I evil? Yes, I am. Am I evil? I am man, yes, I am.”
True to metal form, the rest of the lyrics were pretty dumb. Yet, however accidentally, the chorus did hint at the Christian view that man is fallen. Not exactly a theologian at fifteen, to my immature mind the song was good simply because it sounded “evil.” If Elvis Presley scared parents in the 1950s and the Beatles did it in the ’60s, by the ’70s and ’80s predictably rebellious teenagers desired a more extreme music to pacify their usual, rite-of-passage adolescent silliness. For many, heavy metal was it—and the more “evil” the better.
As part of a panel for The American Conservative at this year’s Freedom Fest conference in Las Vegas, speakers Daniel McCarthy, Jon Basil Utley and I discussed the possibilities of the Tea Party and conservatives in general redefining the Right’s foreign policy post-Bush. We each made the case that conservatives should return to a more prudent and constrained foreign policy, based on actual defense and tangible national interests, as opposed to Bush-era nation-building and “spreading democracy” around the globe. One attendee, who seemed to think George W. Bush had already defined the Right’s foreign policy just fine, asked in anger: What “good” was America if we didn’t “fight evil?” McCarthy asked where we might find “fighting evil” in the Constitution. The gentleman walked out.
Like the Metallica song, the man’s comments might have contained a morsel of truth about traditional American character or foreign policy, true or perceived. But the inherent vagueness of his statement more closely resembled my juvenile attraction to the heavy metal concept of “evil.” Both concepts are exciting precisely to the degree that they are void of any tangible meaning. To flesh out either, from mere theory to actuality, not only immediately diminishes their attractiveness but makes them morally repulsive. For metal fans who would champion “evil” or Republican hawks who would fight it—the devil becomes apparent by insisting on details.
“Evil” to American heavy metal fans is mostly symbolic and comedic nonsense. If at fifteen I was intrigued by Metallica, at 36 I was nostalgic for an even more “evil” band of my youth, the legendary “death metal” act Slayer. Attending a Slayer concert in Atlanta last fall, I watched men roughly my age taking their adolescent sons to see this ghoulish group—who sang about death, mayhem, and, of course, the devil. The most charming moments were when Slayer gave friendly acknowledgment to a wheelchair-bound man who was gently hoisted into the air by the audience so that he could get a better view of his favorite band. There was also a young boy sitting next to me, probably about ten, who knew most of the lyrics and when it was appropriate to “bang his head” in sync with the music, with his father helping him along. In fact, the audience was filled with fathers and sons (heavy metal simply isn’t most girls’ thing, young or old) bonding in a similar manner.
Now what would any of these concert attendees—fathers, sons, conservative columnists, the band itself—actually do if confronted in real life by the grisly musical subject matter? Certainly not cheer. Most would probably start praying or even take up arms to defeat the injustice before them. Slayer was once asked where they got their inspiration. They said mostly television.
TV is likely also a primary inspiration for many war hawks. Does the man who insisted it is America’s mission to “fight evil” think we should have US troops in the Darfur region of Sudan? Many American liberals believe we should, yet few if any conservatives think the US has any business there—even to fight mass genocide. Is it America’s role to oust evil dictator Muammar Gaddafi in Libya? Most conservatives now say no, while neoconservatives and Obama loyalists say yes. Should we fight the obviously evil regime in China—or continue borrowing money from them? Parade magazine’s annual list of the world’s worst dictators often includes nations like Saudi Arabia—which is not only an ally but has been regularly ranked worse on human rights abuses than Saddam Hussein or the current Iranian regime. Most Americans would defend their country against any imminent threat—but would most send their sons or daughters off to fight an abstract “evil” of no particular concern to the US?
Many in this country would likely consider their government evil if it sacrificed American lives needlessly in Darfur. How does one quantify evil in Libya—where the resistance to Gaddafi reportedly includes the same radical jihadists American soldiers now fight in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is China not really evil simply because they’re our friend? Is the same true of Saudi Arabia? Anyone would want to “fight evil” in the abstract but the concrete details tend to complicate such arguments.
Christianity (and occasionally Metallica) teaches that all men have the capacity for evil to the extent that they are men. Jesus came to earth precisely to save us from our inherent sin. Today, America remains a good nation to the extent that it retains its historic Christian character—but it becomes prideful and foolish to the extent that it considers itself uniquely suited for a job that, to date in human history, only Jesus Christ has claimed the ability to accomplish.
The armchair generals, Republican and Democrat, Bush and Obama supporters, who would send American soldiers virtually anywhere to “fight evil” are as unthinking and abstract in their foreign policy as they are in defining what that evil is. What I considered “evil” as a teenager was just as abstract—my generation’s version of mindless musical rebellion and a search for identity. Most older metal fans recognize this now; especially as we watch younger generations, often our own children, make the same journey.
But perpetual adolescence is not suitable for practical foreign policy—and those who truly think it is America’s purpose or mission to “fight evil” need to grow up.