Evil is back.
Perhaps it never really left, and we simply grew too sophisticated to talk about it. Before September 11, using the word “evil” made people think you were crazy, exaggerating, or a religious fundamentalist.
Not now. President Bush called Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda “evil.” He slammed North Korea, Iraq and Iran as the “Axis of Evil.” On September 11 Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon trumpeted, “Together we can defeat these forces of evil.” Even Pope John Paul II used the word, denouncing pedophilia as “a most grievous form of the mystery of evil at work in the world.”
Once we label something evil, the lines are drawn, the goal clear: Destroy it. There is nothing to figure out. Why did terrorists hijack jets and ram them into buildings? Because terrorists are evil. Evil is a mystery that cannot be explained.
Try a thought exercise: What if we decided there were no such thing as Evil?
We could no longer simply explain away terrorists as “evil” but instead would seek other explanations. Nothing, of course, justifies terrorism. But finding what causes it can help us destroy it.
Experts remind us that terrorism is rooted in politics, that it is “asymmetrical warfare,” a way for the militarily weak to fight more powerful foes. Most Americans accepted this view back in the 1970s, when terrorists were Europeans who had names such as Ulrike Meinhof instead of Mohamed Atta.
When we can’t simply blame evil for our problems, we become practical. For example, Great Britain tackled IRA terrorism as a political issue and negotiated with the IRA through its de facto political arm, Sinn Fein. The result: a massive decrease in IRA violence.
Politics and diplomacy take work, and they lack the glamour of “battling evil.” But believing we can destroy every terrorist with military might is pure fantasy. Even if we could, how many innocents would be killed and maimed in the process? How many new terrorists would step up? Anyone willing to die can wreak havoc with a box cutter and a flight manual, or a homemade bomb.
Here are two examples of how “battling evil” is causing unintended — and untold — harm:
– OSAMA BIN LADEN: To bring this man and his network to justice, U.S. forces have (unintentionally) killed thousands of Afghani civilians. Millions have fled to refugee camps. At home our government has watered down our civil rights and secretly detained hundreds of people. But after six months of war, Osama bin Laden and many of his associates remain at large. Al Qaeda cells still infect dozens of nations. The Taliban offered to hand over bin Laden in September, but President Bush refused. The U.S. could have inserted commandos in the first days of the war to draw out, engage, and defeat Al Qaeda. Instead, it sought another war with not a single U.S. casualty, and weeks of high altitude bombing sent terrorists running to hole up in civilian enclaves and hospitals, which our leaders then said they felt forced to bomb.
– SADDAM HUSSEIN: Trying to oust this former ally, the U.S. has pummeled Iraq with bombs and sanctions for more than a decade. Reportedly, Saddam Hussein is fine. But more than 600,000 children have starved to death, a “price” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called “worth it” on CBS’s 60 Minutes in 1996. The Bush Administration is now plotting a massive military assault that will undoubtedly produce severe “collateral damage.”
That’s the seduction of evil: Battling it blinds us to less destructive — and possibly more effective — alternatives. The unintended, yet no-less-deadly results are explained away as “necessary evils,” or as the fault of the enemy, who is blamed for creating the “evil” in the first place (enemies who often likewise — and irresponsibly — disparage the U.S. as “The Great Satan”). Yet it is disingenuous for leaders to claim “we had no choice” when they never really looked for any.
One way to start looking is to stop letting leaders get away with simplistic rhetoric that is more medieval than modern, dangerous rhetoric that shuts down the search for solutions. It’s time to force our leaders to get realistic, roll up their sleeves and engage in hard-nosed problem-solving. Only fools think they can beat the Devil at his own game, using violence against violence, anger against anger, hate against hate. But we can beat him at ours — inquiry, reason, and persistence.
The most effective strategy in defeating evil may well be to resist the temptation to use the word in the first place.
Brian J. Foley is a professor at Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Delaware. He can be reached at Brian.J.Foley@law.widener.edu