Then I learned they wanted the writers to meditate on the nature of evil. And I thought, What can I possibly say about the topic of evil that hasn't been said hundreds of times before?
Back in high school, I was taught to begin essays with a quote, since it’s a good and simple way to get your audience’s attention. So when asked to write about the nature of evil, I went searching for something suitably impressive—a line or two from, say, Kierkegaard to overawe you and make you more receptive to my arguments.
After reviewing several hundred entries about evil in various quotation dictionaries, I decided that the last line in Bruce Springsteen’s song “Nebraska” was the best choice, though it doesn’t specifically reference the word evil at all. “Nebraska” is a brief recounting of the 1950s murder spree by Charles Starkweather, as reminisced by Starkweather himself. It concludes with Starkweather offering an explanation about why he committed his heinous deeds (and seduced a young girl into enthusiastically assisting him):
“Well sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
Who needs help from Kierkegaard or Nietzche when you can go straight to The Boss?
I think meanness is closely related to evil, and I think innate meanness is what theologians like to dress up as mankind’s fallen nature. As you might suppose, I do not subscribe to supernatural origins of evil any more than I believe I get short story ideas from Muses.
Meanness some will argue is inferior in both terminology and concept, a feeble, solitary plink on the far right side of the piano keyboard, a note hopelessly outclassed by evil’s thunderous electric guitar solo. A brother pulling his sister’s hair is being mean. Admittedly very few would label such an act evil. But let’s withhold judgment for now.
Meanness itself has an interesting etymology. In its earliest incarnation, around 1350, it actually meant communion and fellowship. In Chaucer’s time, meanness meant that you were neighborly. But that changed over the next two hundred years, and by 1550 meanness meant weakness and inferiority, particularly in matters of income. Being mean wasn’t too dissimilar from being poor, and of course poverty tends to inspire jealousy and envy. The Bible itself says the love of money is the root of all evil. By the logic of a much older linguistic construction, then, meanness might be linked more closely to evil than we ever realized.
But let’s return the Oxford English Dictionary to the shelf and talk about meanness as we typically think of it today. Everyone’s got a mean streak in them, and I think evil happens when that streak comes to the forefront and dominates, however briefly, your thoughts and deeds. I’ll use an example of my own mean streak, since I happen to be an authority on it. I work as a reference librarian, which puts me in contact with “the public” all the time. “The public” can try a person’s patience like no other. For example, once I had to deal repeatedly with a very elderly Japanese man who kept asking me the same questions over and over again, day after day for weeks at a time. I reached the point where I truly dreaded seeing him. He was harmless enough, and quite nice, but he pestered me and wore out my patience to the point where my mean streak came to the forefront and I looked at him and thought: We dropped two atomic bombs on your country, and somehow we still missed you.
As soon as I thought this, I knew I’d just reached a new personal low. While I hadn’t assaulted him or even said anything that might indicate my disturbing feelings at that moment, I was still basically wishing the old man dead, and using the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as grist for a nasty sarcastic quip. Pretty mean of me—and pretty damn evil when it comes right down to it. Of course, thinking of a bad act and actually performing one are separate issues, unless you happen to hold to the Confiteor and believe a sin in thought is equal to a sin in deed. I don’t believe that, but I’m weary of what evils meanness can eventually empower a person to commit. If meanness goes indulged for too long, the thought can become the deed.
Christianity has always seemed to want to cover up meanness in order to promote the more opaque concept of sin. Christ himself during his crucifixion looks down at the soldiers gambling for his clothes and says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But isn’t that bullshit? Those Roman soldiers knew exactly what they were doing. They were indulging in callous meanness while three men suffered a few feet over their heads. They weren’t naïfs any more than, more recently, Lynddie England and her commanding officers were when they flashed a thumb’s up sign while posing for photographs before a pyramid of naked Iraqi prisoners.
The worst part of meanness, then, is that it’s done in the full possession of your faculties. Indulging your meanness isn’t the same as going insane. When surveillance cameras showed CEO Des Hague suddenly and repeatedly kicking a puppy for no reason, we saw meanness in action—and evil. Hague claimed the dog upset him and he lost control of his emotional response—but he still knew exactly what he was doing.
Yes, there is indeed a meanness in this world.
How does all this relate to my story “The Alamo Incident”? Let me first say that when I wrote the story, I wasn’t remotely thinking about the concept of evil. I was primarily interested in creating a hero who belonged to the pulp tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The creatures that attack the Alamo might be malevolent, or that might simply be the interpretation of the narrator, Timaeus Shields.
The real evil in “The Alamo Incident” is President Jackson, who manipulates and psychologically bullies the narrator into doing his bidding. There are several historical people my imagination loves to inhabit—Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde come to mind—because the sheer uniqueness of their personalities are a challenge and a delight to recreate. I found Andrew Jackson to be one of them. Like him or hate him, even a cursory glance at his biography will show he was quite the badass, fearless and domineering, anxious to test the force of his will against almost anything. These traits are exhilarating to write about but dangerous to worship, especially when dealing with a man who also committed many despicable deeds.
The key to understanding Jackson’s character in “The Alamo Incident” is his reaction to the story Timaeus narrates to him to illustrate the question of God’s existence. In the story, a shapeshifting shaman turns into a wolf to kidnap babies, but returns to human form in order to eat them. Timaeus manages to kill the shaman and save a baby, only to find its parents have killed themselves in grief. Jackson says, “This is a bitterness I can taste!” It’s an over-the-top line, and one that makes even the loyal Shields question what sort of man the President is. The answer, of course, is that he’s not a very nice one at all. He’s mean and amoral, something Timaeus recognizes for himself—and about himself—in the story’s conclusion.