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No Country For Old Men Shows Why There Can Be No Compromise With Evil Like Hamas

Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men
Image CreditMax/YouTube

You cannot coexist with unconditional evil, and Hamas is just that.


The moral valence of real-world situations is often complicated, with more gray than black and white. But other times, the moral clarity of a conflict is evident. So it is with the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine after Hamas terrorists carried out their brutal assault on Israeli civilians just over three months ago.

I couldn’t help but think of this war as I reread Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men with one of my classes. We read the book for what it can tell us about cultural breakdown in the wake of the 1960s, rampant materialism and the loss of religion, and the furious violence of which men are capable when they are not properly culturally regulated. 

This time through the book, however, I was called especially to the narrative it offers of how one must deal with unmitigated evil.

In the novel, Llewelyn Moss is being pursued by Anton Chigurh, the sinister and quasi-mythological archetype of criminal insanity who wants the money Moss appropriated from the gory scene of a shootout at a drug deal gone wrong. When Chigurh arrives at his hotel, kills the clerk, and obtains the key to Moss’s room, he finds it seemingly deserted. But when he looks in the bathroom, Moss gets the drop on him.

“Don’t turn around,” he orders Chigurh. “You turn around and I’ll blow you to hell.”

After taking Chigurh’s gun and walking him down the hallway, however, Moss inexplicably flees without eliminating the threat — but he doesn’t get far. Eventually, he is found by others pursuing the drug money and shot dead.

Chigurh, meanwhile, tracks down Moss’s young wife, Carla Jean, as her death is part of the dark ethic by which he operates. The scene in which Chigurh murders Carla Jean is one of the most unbearable in the book. She is a good woman who has done nothing except love and support the man to whom she is married. He clearly loved her just as fiercely but let her down — in taking the money in the first place and setting the whole thing into action, and then in egotistically believing he could win against overpowering malign forces. Most profoundly, he failed her in having refused the opportunity to eliminate a force of evil when he had it.

This same theme — the protagonist who has the opportunity to dispatch abject evil and does not do so, out of misplaced mercy, and later pays the ultimate price for his mistake — can be found elsewhere in McCarthy’s novels. In Blood Meridian, the kid has several chances to destroy the judge, the very incarnation of war and bloodlust, but does not take them. By the novel’s conclusion, he becomes yet another of the judge’s victims.

What is it in evil that distinguishes it from good? Chigurh tells Carla Jean, and us, just before he coldly murders her. “You don’t have to… You don’t,” she pleads. She presents no immediate danger to him. But perhaps she could describe him to the police and in this way somehow aid in his eventual capture. “You’re asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do,” he responds. 

What is vulnerability? It is the act of accepting one’s weakness and trusting the other, even though such trust is always an act of blind faith, impossible to base on anything other than love and acceptance. The other can always turn on you, betray you, harm you. To make yourself vulnerable before him is the most primordial act of humbling oneself. 

Evil can never do this. Evil is that which is never vulnerable, which crushes the act of truth and faith by its inability to humble itself, and which pursues only domination.

To fail to act appropriately toward evil is to participate in its survival. Good, even in the quite less than pure form of Llewelyn Moss, is called to stand against evil. This cannot mean sacrificing itself, as this will entail, logically extended, the elimination of good and the proliferation of evil.

What then must the good do? It must destroy evil. Moss should have shot Chigurh before he turned around. By the logic of the novel, he would not therefore have saved his own life, since it was the Mexican drug cartel members who eventually caught up with him. But he would have saved the life of his loving and beloved wife. And he would have saved the untold number of victims that lay in the brutal and evil killer’s future.

The central figure in the novel, Sheriff Bell, speaks emotionally of the deep religious belief of his wife, his anchor in the world. In her deep faith, she might well remind us that judgment is always and finally God’s. This much is true. Sometimes, though, God requires us to act to show our own commitment to the good, and precisely to hasten the moment at which His judgment of evil may take place.

This brings me back to Israel and Hamas. As my class was finishing the novel, I thought of how so much of the Western media, political, and intellectual elite has been saying the same monolithic thing about the defensive response of a people simply trying to live amid surrounding enemies who every day tell the world of their desire to exterminate the Jews — every man, woman, and child. “There must be a ceasefire,” goes the mantra. “We must recognize moral ambiguity.”

Of course, war is almost always more complicated than a showdown between two men like Chigurh and Moss. No one celebrates the dying of Palestinian children under Israeli bombs. But why are those bombs falling?

Because the Palestinian people in Gaza selected as their leaders a terrorist gang that has been explicit about their evil designs for decades, a terrorist gang that a majority of Palestinians still support today. Because Hamas did what evil entities can be counted on to do — that is, it deliberately and enthusiastically committed atrocities. And because it promises more atrocities if it is not stopped. 

If Hamas genuinely wanted no Palestinian children to die in the war it began, it needed only to surrender and dissolve its organization. Even short of that, it could greatly reduce the amount of suffering to innocents in Gaza by giving up the practice, vastly documented by many sources, of using its own citizenry as human shields against the attack that was called forth by its own savagery. But it does not do these things, and we can safely predict it will not do them. 

Why? Because it is a force of evil.

The complexities here are obfuscations of a basic reality. The story of Israel and Hamas is the same as the one of Moss and Chigurh. Moss is incompletely and waveringly good, certainly, but at his core, he is on the right side of the moral binary. The same is true of Israel. Chigurh and Hamas, however, are not morally gray entities. They are evil through and through.

You cannot coexist with unconditional evil, and Hamas is just that. There are only two ways: You will destroy it, or it will destroy you. Israel has chosen, and all those who properly understand the nature of the war of good and evil are compelled to recognize the correctness of its choice. 

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