‘Evil’ is a word which, I think, should be applied with care. I believe that most cruel human actions are the result of ignorance, or cowardice, or illness. Some, though, are the result of greed, or anger, or selfishness, and those may fairly be called ‘evil’.
The historian Beverly Gage recently published the unredacted version of a famous, evil document. In 1964, William Sullivan, a deputy of J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI, composed and mailed an anonymous letter to Martin Luther King Jr.
Hoover suspected King of communist sympathies and had been tapping King’s home, office and hotel rooms, and so knew of King’s extramarital affairs. A tape of one such encounter apparently accompanied the missive.
The letter, which was sent the same year King won the Nobel Peace Prize and which references it, is addressed to KING, explaining that it will not dignify him a ‘Mr.’, ‘Reverend’, or ‘Dr.’ in light of his “abnormal personal behavoir [sic]”.
The letter instructs him, “King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes.” It calls him “evil, vicious”. It tells him, “Listen to yourself you filthy, abnormal animal” and threatens him with the exposure of his affairs, warning him that, “You are done. The American public, the church organizations that have been helping – Protestant [edited for legibility], Catholic and Jews will know you for what you are – an evil, abnormal beast.”
Threatens him, unless, within 34 days, he completes an act unspecified: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is…there’s only one way out for you.” King, who apparently didn’t buy the letter for one minute and saw Hoover clearly behind it, thought that the letter was designed to make him kill himself.
This letter is evil along so many axes: the government wire-tapping of political dissidents, the targeting of a non-violent civil rights leader and the attempt to drive him to suicide, the leveraging of a man’s legal sexual appetites against him in the political arena, the patronizing and caricaturish attempt to play on racial loyalty. This letter is utterly unredeemed by any generous or normal human virtue; there is nothing in this sorry episode that the American government should feel good about.
And this was not so long ago – fifty years. I was not alive, but my parents were. We can hardly argue that these are the sins of our remote ancestors, that we are a wholly different nation now. Dr. Gage, in her great short piece in the New York Times, is absolutely right: when we decide to trust our government, when we try to imagine what baseness we’re capable of today, it is worth remembering what base acts we committed only yesterday.
Image taken from the New York Times article cited above.