The Trouble with Evil

Photo by Tech Nick

Oxford Languages defines the word “evil” as “profound immorality and wickedness, especially when regarded as a supernatural force.” The definition suggests that some behaviors are not of this world; they are so much worse than what we regularly read about that they stand outside the margins of our understanding. We are familiar with this idea of evil from childhood: Dracula and wicked witches are malignant creatures animated by dark forces that infect them with such corruption that they are insensible to reason or pity.

Flesh and blood people are also called evil. Serial killers and genocidal dictators come to mind. They are unmoved by the pain and terror they inflict on their victims. Whether products of our societies or monsters from films and fairy tales, evil characters have much in common. They effortlessly persuade others to do terrible things. Dracula enlists Renfield to be his helper. Charles Manson persuaded his followers to kill innocents. Like predatory animals, they strike without warning, but while predators are driven by survival, evil people are simply insane.

Evil is used to explain terrible acts, but the problem is that it explains nothing. In fact, it does the opposite. Evil decontextualizes and mystifies. Using the word “evil” is a feigned or honest admission of ignorance. It also erodes responsibility.

A concrete example will illustrate. Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s architect and later his Minister for Armaments and War Production, was wracked with guilt over the Nazi regime’s crimes. He had loved and admired Hitler. It was only later, toward World War II’s end, that he understood the degree of Hitler’s megalomania. He said that before his moment of clarity, he had been deceived and insisted he did not know about the mass murder of Jews. He lied about that. Speer claimed that Hitler’s special charisma had a hypnotic effect. He once told an interviewer that “One does not recognize the devil when he has his hand on your shoulder.” He meant that Hitler was an illustration of a general principle: cosmic evil can manifest itself in our midst and charm ordinary mortals into stepping over moral boundaries.

Some Germans—including Speer—would struggle with this explanation in the post-war years. They said that characterizing Hitler as evil abdicated him of responsibility. If he were so insane, then he could not have understood right from wrong. Like Dracula, he would have hated the light since it was in his nature to despise it, and consigning the horrors of that time to an unearthly cause was too easy an answer.

They were right. Calling people evil turns them into nightmarish, mythical creatures. By calling them evil, we confer far more power on them than they really have because we surrender the collective power and responsibility we already have. Yet, many tell themselves that if evil people have dark powers, then we can do little to stop them. It seems that we are also off the hook.

Apparently, those like Speer who claimed they never saw troubling signs of what the Nazi regime was capable of were blinded to the awful treatment of Germany’s Jewish population, which was accompanied by vicious and very public anti-Semitic rhetoric for many years. Yet, the logic of evil tells us that eventual mass murder was practically inevitable, and no one was directly responsible. Evil is a consoling myth. It’s little wonder that Albert Speer and so many others clung to it.

Evil-as-explanation is back in the news. Its ability to mystify, conceal, and console is again on display but in a different context. After Hamas’s horrific attack that killed an estimated 1,300 Israelis on October 7, President Joe Biden said that the group had “unleashed pure, unadulterated evil in the world.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Hamas “the new Nazis.”

Like the Nazis, Hamas’s powers to corrupt ordinary people must have been formidable. As the Israeli army began indiscriminately pummeling Gaza with rockets, President Isaac Herzog angrily dismissed the very idea of a Palestinian non-combatant. He said, “It’s not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. They could have fought against that evil regime.”  He claimed that instead of resisting evil, Gazans were firing rockets at Israelis out of their kitchen windows.  According to Herzog, millions of Gazans were complicit on October 7, seduced by Hamas’s malevolent charisma. One assumes this includes over 14,000 dead, including 5,800 children.

Many news outlets called Hamas’s assault a “surprise attack.” After all, evil strikes without warning; it has no human context since it is unearthly. However, as the Associated Press reported, less than a week before the October 7 assault, Egyptian intelligence “warned them [the Israeli government] an explosion of the situation [was] coming, and very soon, and it would be big.” Netanyahu denies he received reports about an impending attack, but sound counsel about the real possibility of violence had been publicly available for a long time. Former Israeli security and military officials have published analyses and done many interviews on the topic. Perhaps the forces of evil impaired Israeli politicians’ reading and listening skills.

The notion of evil extracts atrocities from real-life conditions, which makes another awful October 7 and the horrors that have followed in its wake more likely. We have a unique opportunity to press for humane solutions that are already at our disposal. Dispensing with the obfuscation of evil would be a productive start.

Michael Slager is an English teacher at Loyola University Chicago.