The Chronicle Review

Evildoers and Us

Illustration by Steve Brodner

Allan Wolfe with, clockwise from top left, Paul Berman, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Leon Wieseltier, Samantha Power
September 11, 2011

The problem of evil is one of our oldest intellectual conundrums. Volumes have been written attempting to define evil, to catalog its horrors, to account for its persistence, to explain its appeal, to confront its consequences. The moment we begin to ask questions about the nature of evil, however, we begin to understand how difficult it is to answer them. One way to start the discussion is to narrow the focus.

Evil is all too often analyzed at too high a level of abstraction. If theologians tell us that evil is what human beings do in the absence of God, they face the difficult tasks of defining God's essence. Philosophers who conceptualize evil as a disturbance in the natural order of the universe must wrestle with the nature of the universe, not to mention the meaning of order. Contemporary neuroscientists who view evil as a product of faulty hard-wiring in our brains do not always know what is taking place in our minds. There are times and places when discussions of the theology or the metaphysics of evil are appropriate. But there are also times when they can get in the way of knowing what to do when we are confronted with terrorists who fly planes into buildings or enforcers of ethnic solidarity who rape and kill those whose land they covet.

The most important thing we need to do to come to terms with the horrors confronting us is to stop talking about evil in general and focus instead on political evil in particular. Political evil refers to the willful, malevolent, and gratuitous death, destruction, and suffering inflicted upon innocent people by the leaders of movements and states in their strategic efforts to achieve realizable objectives.

We are unlikely ever to wipe evil per se off the face of the earth. But if we think more clearly and act more strategically, we can significantly reduce the amount of political evil threatening us. Those who plan and carry out political evil no doubt have malevolence in their hearts or malfunctions in their brains. But it is not their insides that ought to concern us; it is their acts. Whether they are twisted by hatred and envy, exemplars of depraved human nature, stunted in their development because they were abused as children, psychotic or sociopathic, unwilling to allow a savior into their lives, suffering from delusions of grandeur, obsessive-compulsive in their personality disorders, the product of poor genetic heritage, or seriously dependent on their meds to get through the day is a matter of scant interest to us. Let them talk to their therapists, make pacts with Mephistopheles, send out videotapes explaining their acts, or seek redemption for the horrors they unleash; we have little at stake in their struggles with their demons. We can recognize their depravity, but it is their cunning that ought to concern us. We need not reform them, stigmatize them, or show them the path to salvation. We need to stop them, and in order to do that we have to focus on the political causes that attract them and their followers. Acts are easier to change than people.

When confronted with political evil, we are better off responding to the "political" rather than to the "evil." Politics demands that when faced with tactics that threaten our way of life in the pursuit of political goals, we at least make an effort to understand why those goals were chosen in the first place. There will be situations when we will be tempted to conclude that the methods used against us are so evil that there is nothing to discuss with those who employ them. But precisely because those methods are so evil, we might also decide that we ought to do everything in our power to bring them to an end, even if doing so means engaging politically with people we rightly despise. Political evil gives us choices. We are foolish, and not nearly as moral as we may congratulate ourselves for being, if we refuse to make them.

As crucial as it is to deal more effectively with political evil, however, we all too often do it in ways that are confused if not contradictory. Overwhelmed by the horrors once associated with totalitarianism, we apply too many inappropriate comparisons with the Nazi and Stalinist period to the events of our own day. We either exaggerate the human capacity for evil by finding it lurking in everyone or make it more difficult to control evil by ascribing to evildoers an almost supernatural ability to get their way in the world. We try to solve political problems by relying on humanitarian instincts—and vice versa. We find ourselves calling for the impossible goal of ending evil instead of the achievable one of containing it.

Finding better ways of responding to political evil is more than a matter of improving airport security procedures or recruiting better informants; it also requires training in political philosophy and experience with political wisdom. It is that lack of serious reflection about the nature of political evil that explains why Western governments, far from bringing it under control, all too often enable it to spread. That is certainly the case when, determined to take the hardest possible line against evildoers, they engage in evil acts themselves, whether by relying on torture, suspending basic legal procedures, or turning a blind eye as others torture for them. But they are just as clumsy when they declare wars against terrorism as a way of containing terrorists or refuse to negotiate with leaders who in reality thrive the more they are isolated. Some countries manage to develop better political approaches to political evil than others. But none of them have found the right combination of moral indignation and practical wisdom. And the two countries most threatened by political evil in the modern world—the United States and Israel—have been especially woeful at understanding its political causes and have therefore been unable to successfully combat it. Political evildoers have learned that, with few exceptions, the consternation and hysteria they unleash expand their opportunities to engage in political evil once again.

Two somewhat contrarian approaches follow from focusing on political evil in particular rather than evil in general—and they are best acknowledged up front. The first calls attention to the dangers of misplaced empathy. Evil, the basest of all human motivations, strikes powerful chords deep inside those moved by a sense of compassion. Learning of genocide in distant lands or witnessing what innocent victims of terror have suffered, people with strong humanitarian instincts will identify with those victims and, in the case of those inclined to be politically active, seek to mobilize campaigns on their behalf. Intellectuals splitting hairs seem wildly inappropriate when killers are cracking heads. We have seen evil triumph before, and we must be vigilant never to allow its victory again. Our hearts must be touched before our brains kick into thought.

Such instinctive empathy, alas, despite its humanitarian wellspring, is not enough when dealing with actual cases of political evil. Political evil is distinctive; it comes in many different forms. Combating it demands what responding compassionately to evil in general discourages: making comparisons, thinking critically, questioning assumptions. We need to be careful before we can be effective, taking each case of political evil on its own terms to avoid lumping them all together as if the lessons learned from one automatically apply to the others.

Because both Rwanda and Darfur are in Africa and have witnessed horrendous violence, we are inclined to see what happened in the latter as a replay of what took place in the former; yet the situation in Rwanda proved to be an example of genocide, while the conflict in Darfur grew out of an effort to put down an insurgency, and the difference matters. It may not appear particularly sensitive to those Israelis victimized by the terror unleashed by Hamas and Hezbollah to point out that each group has its own reason for existence, or even to raise the question of whether the actions of Israel's leaders in the past and present have contributed to the terror facing its citizens, but those are questions that must be asked if Israel is ever to live without terror. The same risk of seeming indifferent is run if we conclude that the campaigns launched by Serbs against the other ethnic groups with whom they shared the Yugoslav federation were matched in ugly intent by the victims of Serbian aggression with whom we are more likely to identify, but in truth no side in the former Yugoslavia was innocent of the charge of political evil. Who cares if genocide and ethnic cleansing are not the same thing? Why does it matter that the moral and strategic issues raised by suicide terrorism are very different from those presented by terrorism from which the perpetrators walk away unscathed? If someone is shooting at you, is it really important whether he is an alienated high-school student oblivious to the larger world around him or a religious believer motivated by a commandment from God? Asking questions in the wake of satanic acts seems, even to the nonreligious, somehow blasphemous.

Still, asking questions and making distinctions are things we must do if we are to understand and combat political evil. The best way to help political evil's victims is to grasp why they are being victimized. We should not lose our heads just because people lose their lives.

Second, when we talk about evil in general, we frequently make the mistake of treating it as larger than life, as if those who kill en masse, precisely because they commit the worst of human acts, must be motivated by a cause equal to the enormity of their deeds. The 20th century was an ideological one, and it is therefore no surprise that in its aftermath there exists a widespread inclination, depending upon the political views of the observer, to invoke such large-scale movements as fascism, communism, colonialism, radical Islam, Zionism, or global terror as explanations for the persistence of political evil. Treating evil as part of some larger worldview seemingly prepares us for the long, hard struggle against it. Those who stoop so low as to rain terror upon the innocent or to kill out of racial, religious, or ethnic hatred, it is widely believed, must be so blinded by a fanatic commitment to a cause that attributing their acts to specific conditions borders on justifying what they do. The end of the cold war, this way of thinking holds, has not brought about the end of grandiose dreams. If anything, we witness frequent clashes of civilizations in which violence deployed on behalf of one way of life leads to fatal collisions with others.

This tendency to find larger reasons for political evil is also a temptation best avoided. The tyrant Saddam Hussein may have had fascist leanings, but he was an Iraqi Baathist, not a Nazi. Communism was one of the great failed gods of our time, but it did not cause ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia; the determination of the leaders of non-Communist independent nations to redraw their boundaries to include more people like themselves did. Tribal conflicts escalating throughout Africa have been exacerbated by the artificial divisions Westerners imposed on their former colonies, but those conflicts also have indigenous roots. Hezbollah and Hamas refuse to renounce terror, but their militancy has little to do with something called radical Islam and everything to do with the immediate politics of the Middle East, just as Israel's determination to strengthen its security is motivated by considerations of state-building and is not part of some Zionist effort to control the world. The contemporary era contains more than its share of clashes, but not all of them are civilizational. We must meet political evil where it matters most, and that is where it makes its home. Ideologies do not kill people; local political leaders do.

I am among those Americans who came to political maturity at the same time that my country decided to wage a war in Vietnam for no good reason and in a way that took countless lives. Like so many others of my generation, I developed such a strong reaction against the misuse of U.S. troops abroad that I could not imagine any circumstance that would justify American intervention into the affairs of other people. That, I later came to learn, was a serious mistake: It did not follow that because American forces were used badly in Vietnam, they should never be used at all. Ultimately appalled at the naïve leftism I saw around me, I resigned from the editorial board of The Nation, a magazine that in my view was publishing all too many simplistic attacks on America's role in the world, and began to write for its rival publication, The New Republic, known for its harder-line foreign-policy positions and willingness to defend the use of American power to promote freedom and democracy. A critic of what we in the New Left had once called "cold-war liberalism," I had become something of a post-cold-war liberal myself. It especially pleased me that the magazine with which I was identified published intellectuals who wrote about our responsibility never again to allow the evils associated with totalitarianism to go uncontested. They struck me as among the most morally serious thinkers of our time.

I have begun to have second thoughts—call them third thoughts if you are persuaded that I cannot make up my mind—about the wisdom of rushing to judgment about political evil and assuming that reliance on military power is the best way to combat it. It is not as if I find once again attractive the isolationism born of the fear of American power that took on such prominence in the years after Vietnam. Nor can I ever imagine that I will become an unfeeling realist who believes morality has no role to play in foreign-policy decisions. The mass horrors revealed by genocide, ethnic cleansing, and terrorism prompted me to turn my attention away from the humdrum of domestic elections and policy to questions of moral philosophy and political theology. I still prefer the ideas of those intellectuals who view themselves as heirs to the liberal anticommunism of the earlier days of the cold war to those who blame America first for whatever global problem comes to their attention.

Yet it has become clear to me in recent years that there is often a thin line between moral seriousness and moral posturing. Those on my side of the political fence who twisted themselves into supporting the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq should have thought longer and harder about the immoral implications of preventive war. When I hear talk of a new Islamic conspiracy meant to take over the world, one bearing striking similarity to the Nazi threat of the mid-20th century, I shudder at the wildly inappropriate comparison between faith and fanaticism. Political philosophers I deeply admire who write about unjust wars, yet also seem to find wars undertaken by countries with which they identify invariably defensible, strike me as having lost their analytic edge. A decision to invade another country in order to free its citizens from the oppressions visited upon them by their own leaders will surely be required from time to time. But when every case of overseas violence is treated as an example of genocide demanding the deployment of more U.S. troops, something has gone seriously wrong with both the analysis and the recommendation.

Newfound cold-war liberals appealed to me because of their willingness to courageously confront complacency and cliché. Now I find many of them formulaic and conventional. Like them, I continue to believe that we in the West have an overwhelming moral obligation to come to the defense of those victimized by evil irrespective of where they live. The important question is not whether we should but how we can be effective. There is no purpose served by posturing. Experience counts for nothing unless we learn from it.

Although we must continue to make the problem of political evil central to our concerns, we must also be willing to deal with its complexity. It does not benefit the victims of political evil anywhere if, anxious to come to their assistance, we fail to understand precisely what led to their suffering and therefore try to help them in wrong, if not counterproductive, ways. In nearly all the cases of political evil we witness in the contemporary world, the good guys are not always good, the motives of the bad guys may not be what we (or they) claim, and the failure to understand the motives of both may lead to decisions that wind up increasing suffering.

The risk of treating political evil with dispassion is that one appears not to be taking evil seriously. But making evil central to everything we do allows political evil space to grow. Paradoxes and complexities do not disappear just because our intentions are good. We should be liberal and idealistic enough to identify political evil and do everything in our power to limit its reach. We should also be conservative and realistic enough to recognize that doing so will never be simple and can easily backfire.

Some ways of thinking about political evil are more helpful than others. Some ways of combating political evil work better than others. If we are to do our best to limit the consequences of political evil, we cannot rely on sloppy historical analogies, amateurish psychological speculations, discredited theological apologetics, political oversimplifications, rigid ideological categorizations, and tired moral platitudes. We owe the victims of political evil more than our compassion. By lowering our sights we can raise their hopes.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and a professor of political science at Boston College. This essay is adapted from Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It, to be published next week by Knopf.