The Fundamental Question of the Twenty-first Century
Putting Politics First
When the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in 1945 that “the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe,” she could easily have broadened her geographic scope. There is no more important problem facing the entire world today than the existence of evil, and there is no subject more characterized by muddled thinking and self- defeating responses. Evil threatens us in ways that make hurricanes, global warming, fl u pandemics, and financial panics, as awful as they are, seem small by comparison. Present all around us, evil demands our best efforts to understand it if it is to be contained. In this book I offer a way of thinking designed to do that.
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 subject has attracted philosophers, poets, artists, theologians, psychologists, novelists, composers, and physicians. Every major language has a term for evil, and every major religion—pantheistic, dualistic, or monotheistic—shows a preoccupation with it. Human beings may want to be good, but they have long recognized that they have to familiarize themselves with the bad. Because it touches so closely the mystery of human existence, evil is a subject best approached with considerable trepidation. Fortunately, this has not stopped some of the finest thinkers the world has ever known from addressing it.
The moment we begin to ask questions about the nature of evil, however, we begin to understand how difficult it will be to answer them. In the West alone, two of the greatest theologians in the Christian tradition—Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas—spent countless pages exploring whether evil exists and what forms it takes, work that in many ways was shaped by earlier, pre-Christian philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Every student asked to read Macbeth
is introduced to the complexity of evil, as are those who ponder Paradise Lost
or Goethe’s Faust.
A fascination with the problem of evil, argues the philosopher Susan Neiman, dominated the writings of such Enlightenment thinkers as Rousseau, Kant, and Voltaire and found particularly poignant expression in the post-Enlightenment philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Similar concerns shaped America’s writers and leaders, appearing in the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, the debates over the Constitution, the work of Herman Melville, and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln. Dostoyevsky and Conrad were only two of the great European novelists who wrote about evil in strikingly contemporary ways. As late as the 1950s, explorations of evil lay at the heart of such widely regarded scholars as Arendt, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and those Jewish philosophers such as Emil Fackenheim moved by the Holocaust to refl ect on just what future God had in mind for his chosen people. We know evil is there, yet we are not sure what makes people evil or whether their evil can ever be overcome.
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, interpreting his words, and deciding which of many available deities is the authoritative one. 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.
Later on I will revisit this definition with more care; distinguish between political, everyday, and radical evil; examine the specific forms that political evil can take; and discuss the best ways to respond to each of them. But for now I want to insist that while political evil causes massive amounts of harm and directly assaults our fundamental moral sense, we need not feel hopeless in the face of it. 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.
Bringing the problem of evil down from the heavens into the world of politics and policy offers advantages that can help make the atrocities we face in the world today more intelligible. One is that it changes the kinds of questions we ask. Politics is not philosophy, and neither is it theology or neuroscience. 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 a 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 a 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.
A focus on political evil, in addition, reminds us of how evil and politics make for an especially toxic mix. Organized into a movement or state and motivated by a cause that gives them passion and purpose, practitioners of political evil are capable of carrying out violence on levels that far surpass those realizable by any lone individual. Evil individuals without a state or movement behind them can shed only so much blood. Those who gain command over the state’s sources of revenue and monopoly of violence are capable of making that blood flow in amounts too copious to measure. One reason political evil is so omnipresent is that states are so common. Even dictators ruling over poor or not very strategically important states—Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan—can cause unimaginable suffering. Because of the growth of modern states, political evil has in a sense been democratized—and in the most frightening of ways. As the potency of means of destruction has increased, so has the number of leaders with access to them.
Paradoxically, however, the same control over a movement or a state that maximizes the power at the disposal of these leaders also tempers their extremism. For better or worse, those who commit acts of political evil have been tested; they have risen through the ranks of an organization to assume a position of control within it. Almost never elected to office, and inclined to suspend elections even when they have been, they can be as ruthless toward their followers as they are toward their enemies. Yet while they are radical in their choice of means, politically evil leaders are often conservative in how they apply them. Having spent years building a movement or assuming a position of power, they are reluctant to become too reckless for fear of destroying what they have patiently constructed. Evil leaders kill others, and they even, in the form of suicide terrorism, encourage some of their followers to kill themselves. But as political
leaders, they are anything but suicidal. They serve a cause, and the furtherance of that cause, as well as the organization embodying it, trump everything else. Organizational weapons are therefore inevitably used cautiously. Al-Qaeda spent five years planning its bombings against U.S. embassies in Africa, two developing its attack on the USS Cole,
and as many as seven preparing for September 11. While it is quite possible that the successful effort by the Obama administration to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011 has crippled al-Qaeda’s capacity, any further attacks the group or its offshoots may be planning, based on its earlier record, will not be precipitately chosen. One does not become engaged in politics unless one’s cause has a future. Once a group’s vision becomes future oriented, its conduct in the present becomes constrained. If the politics in political evil makes us shudder, it also gives us hope.
When confronted with political evil, we are better off responding to the “political” rather than to the “evil.” Politics does not ask that we eradicate evil from the dark hearts of men and women. It does demand 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. Fighting evil with evil contaminates, but fighting politics with politics does not. We confuse the two at great risk to ourselves. 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.
Because my focus is on political evil and not evil in general, this book, despite its subject matter, will not be a pessimistic one. It is true that we live in an era when the means of political evil are available to so many. But it does not follow that we must accustom ourselves to the status of potential victims who might at any moment be subject to the worst horrors in history. The fact that some employ terror does not mean that everyone should be terrorized. For every practitioner of genocide, there exist activists, lawyers, judges, and humanitarians with real-world experience in bringing genocide to an end. Even the most hate-spewing heads of state with access to weapons of mass destruction do not necessarily want to risk destroying their own people by actually using them. We are only aware of the ubiquity of political evil because we have learned that there are other and better ways for states to manage their affairs than by oppressing their own people or seeking to swallow up their neighbors. We should never doubt the ugliness of political evil. But nor should we doubt our intelligence, both the kind that enables us to think clearly about what we face as well as the kind that helps governments adopt the best national security strategies for responding to the attacks against them.
Political evil, in short, while a problem of utmost seriousness, is not a bottomless quandary. When a new example of political evil breaks out in the world, the last thing we should do is throw up our hands in theological, philosophical, or literary despair. Helplessness only furthers hate. The problem of political evil should concentrate our minds rather than cloud our judgment. Politics always takes place in this world, and it is in this world that we are obligated to remain if we are to combat political evil with any success. It is certainly important to turn to the great classic texts of the Western tradition to understand human malevolence at its worst. But we also need to think politically about the choices confronting us if we are to bring into being a world with just a little less evil than the one we see around us. Doing so will not produce a perfect world, but it would be a notable achievement nonetheless.
Excerpted from Political Evil by Alan Wolfe. Copyright © 2011 by Alan Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.