What Is the Proper Response to “Evil”?

An Armenian Orthodox church that the Islamic State occupied and converted into a jail and place to teach terrorist activities. (Credit: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
An Armenian Orthodox church that the Islamic State occupied and converted into a jail and place to teach terrorist activities. (Credit: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

For a student of evil, Stephen Colbert’s exchange with Bill O’Reilly on “The Late Show” two days after the Orlando killings was an education. “This guy was evil,” O’Reilly said of the gunman, Omar Mateen.

Colbert immediately asked, “What is the proper response to evil?”

“Destroy it,” O’Reilly answered. “You don’t contain evil, because you can’t. You destroy evil. ISIS is evil, and Mateen is evil.”

O’Reilly’s attitude toward evil exemplifies the ethical justification for the most consequential American policy decisions of the past 15 years — and, if we consent, for those that will be made in reaction to the Orlando massacre and others like it. Recent history and philosophy have taught that violence is the surest outcome of blithely ascribing the quality of evil to another. At best, this process may supplant the thing we brand evil for a time, but the notion that evil can be “destroyed” is an ethical version of a fool’s errand. We have an opportunity now to reassess the politics of evil and to consider responses to it that would mitigate rather than amplify human suffering.

I was drawn to thought on evil as a seminarian trying to make sense of the intractable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that framed my formation for the priesthood. I remembered when President George W. Bush described Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address. Even now, the phrase evokes an instinctual sense of supernatural dread, which was precisely its purpose. As the presidential speechwriters David Frum and Michael Gerson were preparing the address, they tweaked the line from the slightly more benign “axis of hatred” to make it sound more “theological.”

For most of Western intellectual history, the study of evil was reserved for theology. From Augustine and Aquinas to Luther and Calvin, Christian thinkers were preoccupied with the “problem of evil,” or the question of how a good God could allow bad to exist in our world. When Immanuel Kant introduced the concept of a radical evil that exists outside the limits of reason and will, the eternal problem of evil was released from the church’s exclusive grasp.

Perhaps because of its hybrid religious and secular credentials, our concept of evil exerts an almost mystical power over society’s impulse to make order out of chaos and despair. As Susan Neiman writes in her landmark study, “Evil in Modern Thought,” “The problem of evil can be expressed in theological or secular terms, but it is fundamentally a problem about the intelligibility of the world as a whole.”

Doubtless, Frum and Gerson were striving to answer the country’s need for intelligibility amid the new and frightening sense of insecurity at the time. Yet as events unfolded, the axiomatic and quasi-theological assertion of evil pervading the entire Iraqi regime became the incontrovertible ethical framework for violent action.

As it turns out, there is a difference between good theology and bad theology — at least if we consider the exponential escalation of violence to be a bad thing. The almost 3,000 deaths in the Sept. 11 attacks were answered by an estimated 460,000 deaths in Iraq alone, including more American combatant deaths than civilians who died in the World Trade Center. Despite this high cost, evil is, if we accept a point on which O’Reilly actually agrees with President Obama, as plentiful in the region as it ever was and just as threatening to the United States.

As someone entrusted with a role of moral authority, I am deeply unsettled by this path from evil in political rhetoric to violence. Our inability to answer fundamental questions about the invocation of evil in our public discourse has only increased human suffering. It is imperative that we demand clarity in our common understanding of evil. How can we be sure something is evil and not simply opposed to our interests? Can evil ever fully be destroyed, and if not, is there no point at which we can cease our crusade against it? If evil is absolute, does one have an absolute right to use any means necessary to obliterate it?

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Steven Paulikas

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