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Bill Moyers interviews Susan Neiman on NOW. 2.2.2004

MOYERS: It has also become the subject of one book after another, but there is one unlike any other by a philosopher unlike any other.

Susan Neiman is director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany. She was putting the finishing touches on her new book, EVIL IN MODERN THOUGHT, just as the terrorists struck on 9/11. Few recent books of philosophy have been so favorably reviewed. This spring the paperback edition will be published, with a preface addressing 9/11 specifically.

Welcome to NOW.

NEIMAN: It's a pleasure to be here.

MOYERS: Let me show you a piece of video. And I want to get your reaction to it. Is this the face of evil we're looking at?

NEIMAN: This is surely one face of evil. I think one has to be extremely careful not to locate evil in one kind of a face. And that's the biggest mistake that people make in talking about evil is to think that it only has one form or one face.

Saddam is certainly one. But there are many others. And in talking about Saddam, of course, we can't forget that this is a face that the United States dealt with happily for quite some time in the middle of some of his evilest actions.

MOYERS: When I saw that video the night of his capture I actually thought of Hannah Arendt's much-used term "banality of evil" because I thought that is such a banal face. How does a man who looks so puny now, how could he have committed such evil in his time?

NEIMAN: You know, the interesting thing is if you look at some of the pictures even of the devil himself in modern literature, if you look at Faust or Dostoyevsky, the devil there is a pretty shabby character. He's pathetic, he's bumbling, he's not appealing. But he's also not Satanic in any kind of a strong way. And that's the devil.

It'd be much easier for all of us if people who were evil looked like the devil. I mean literally horns and tails. If we knew how to recognize them. And, in fact, the lesson of the 20th Century is that evil can come in very ordinary forms.

MOYERS: I used to think of Saddam Hussein as the Middle East's Hitler because like Hitler he was able to organize the power of the state to become an instrument of evil practice against his own people. But the question that haunts me is how were both of those men able to find so many willing executioners and torturers to carry out the evil in their name?

NEIMAN: I think it's wrong to focus on Hitler. I think one of the biggest disservices that the Nazis have done through human history is to make us think that we know what evil is and it looks like that. And that anything that's really evil has to be compared with Hitler and has to function in similar ways.

I think it's extremely important to go case by case. Which isn't to say it's not a crucial question that you're asking. Of course it is. But in each case the answer's gonna be different, right? I mean, in each case you have to look at the sorts of chaos that was going on in the particular countries before these men came to power. And think about ways in which they could have been prevented. But I'm not sure that you'll get the same story.

MOYERS: But you remember that after World War II, particularly after Auschwitz, the world, in effect, said, "Never again." And yet since then we've had genocide, mass murder, unspeakable horrors of all kinds. We didn't even though you're right to say it's wrong to think of Auschwitz as the only manifestation of evil. We don't seem to have learned much from that.

NEIMAN: We haven't learned enough. But again, I think part of the reason why we haven't been able to respond to genocide where it's taken place is that we've been fixed on particular images. We've been focused on the Nazis as a way of saying, "Look, that's where evil is. And as long as it doesn't have to do with train tracks and gassing installations we're okay." And that's a real danger.

MOYERS: So how do you identify evil? I mean, like pornography as a Supreme Court Justice said, "I can't define it. But I know it when I see it." Do you know evil when you see it?

NEIMAN: I think there's something right about that definition or that statement, as frustrating as it is for all of us. Do I know it? Not always. It's much easier in particular to know it after the fact. Are there situations in which pretty much all of us agree something has crossed a line between the normally bad, the normally criminal and an action that takes our breath away, leaves us without ordinary ground rules. And most of us can agree on certain cases. You know, 9/11 is one of them, Auschwitz is another. But again, one needs to think about the more complicated cases as well.

MOYERS: You say 9/11 is clearly one of them. Was 9/11 an act of evil or a criminal act?

NEIMAN: I think it was an act of evil. And it was an act of old-fashioned evil÷

MOYERS: How so?

NEIMAN: ÷if you like. Well, you mentioned Arendt's discussion of the banality of evil. What was banal according to her was that it was done without evil intentions. A lot of people became even leading Nazis, Eichmann being one of them, without hating Jews. Without÷ even in the first instance intending to murder them. They began by doing their job. They certainly had no good intentions.

MOYERS: But these young men who flew those planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they knew what they were gonna do.

NEIMAN: Absolutely.

MOYERS: They were out to kill people.

NEIMAN: Absolutely. That's why I called this an instance of old-fashioned evil. It's not banal in the least. They knew exactly what they were doing. They were out to cause the greatest possible number of deaths and the greatest possible amount of fear. Rousseau, by the way, said that fear of death is actually worse than death itself because it threatens our freedom and poisons our lives.

And I think the two years following 9/11 show that he was right. So these people knew exactly what they were doing.

MOYERS: If you had been able to interview those young men who÷ the hijackers, the terrorists, they would not have said to you they were about to do evil. They would have invoked the name of God and said they were on a high holy mission.

NEIMAN: There's a great line by a German Jewish writer, Tucholsky, said, "The opposite of good is good intention." Good intentions or believing that something is called by God is no guarantee of anything whatsoever. In fact, very few evil actions are carried out with really demonic, Sadean intentions. You know, where somebody says, "Hey, I'm out to do as much evil as possible. And to, you know, I just want to cause as much pain and violence and violate as many conventions and laws as possible." There are things like that. But they're not the people who do the most damage.

MOYERS: So if intentions are not necessary to make something evil what does make it evil?

NEIMAN: I think we run a danger by looking for one thing. I think it's a complex of things. The amount of damage and destruction that's caused. The impact on a number of people. All of those things play a role. It's like asking what makes something beautiful.

The fact that I can't tell you one thing that's common, say, between a New England landscape and a Greek island or between a New England landscape, a Greek island and a Bach cantata doesn't stop me or you from finding all those things beautiful. In fact, what you do if you want to make that decision is you look very carefully and you analyze the particulars in each of those situations.

MOYERS: Knowing that you're a philosopher and you see things with subtlety and nuance, how do you account for evil?

NEIMAN: You mean account for how it arises?

MOYERS: Yeah.

NEIMAN: Once again, case by case. Um, I think it's really important to look at a case like 9/11 where people in full knowledge of all the consequences and all the intentions said, "We're gonna learn how to fly planes without landing them and, you know, get in and go ahead."

But it's just as important to remember that in this country, people went along with lynching till not very long ago. Are they involved in evil to the same degree as people who knowingly get up and lynch someone or get up and crash into a building that takes 3000 lives and causes untold damage? No. Are they complicitous in evil? Yes.

MOYERS: So we can participate in evil without knowing it and even benefit from the structure that supports it?

NEIMAN: Absolutely.

MOYERS: Like slavery?

NEIMAN: Absolutely.

MOYERS: I mean, there were people in this country, a large number of people in this country who benefited from no-wage slavery who did not themselves own slaves. And would you say that was÷ slavery was evil?

NEIMAN: Slavery was absolutely evil. And the question is if you're benefiting indirectly or not speaking out against it, to what degree you are participating in evil? I think it's important to think in degrees. That is I don't want to start÷

MOYERS: Spoken like a real philosopher.

NEIMAN: You know, where I think... I think there are many ways in which philosophy can help us get clearer about what we actually do. One of them is to stop thinking in absolutely extreme terms. You can say, well, if we are not actually getting our hands dirty and we're not actually torturing people and murdering them as Saddam Hussein or his flunkies were then we're fine.

Or you can throw up your hands and say, "Gosh, every minute that I accept a world in which children are dying because I'm living in comfort is evil. And therefore I'm, you know, I'm as much of a sinner as anybody else." Both of those are extremes that it seems to me are extremely unhelpful. You've gotta think in degrees.

MOYERS: This what you mean when you write in the book that it's easier to see certain forms of evil, 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, than it is to see the evil that we become slowly but surely inured to as a result of living in the system that can produce enormous benefits for us without our knowing who are the victims of that system.

NEIMAN: That's absolutely right.

I would love it if all the evil in the world could be localized on the heads of, you know, a couple of really awful guys who did really visibly awful things like Saddam Hussein.

That would, you know, be marvelous if we could get rid of it that way. So, yes, I see the impulse to say, you know, enough instrumentalizing, enough negotiating. Let's go back to the time when there were moral problems and countries took stands and got rid of good and evil. I mean, in a certain sense, in the way that people rightly see the allies in World War II, all right? There's a longing for one last good fight or one more good fight.

MOYERS: A good war again.

NEIMAN: Sure. In which we can feel we're on the side of the angels. I see the impulse. But I think one has to be very careful about it.

MOYERS: You used a theological metaphor there to describe÷

NEIMAN: Sure.

MOYERS: ÷a political response to evil.

NEIMAN: Yes.

MOYERS: Let me ask you this, for example. Was Hiroshima, the dropping of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, evil?

NEIMAN: Yes, it was.

MOYERS: Why?

NEIMAN: Because it was an unnecessary÷ First, it's deliberate destruction of vast numbers of civilians that was not, in fact, necessary to winning the war. It was extremely clear. And Nagasaki was even worse. That is, that was a demonstration for the sake of killing a couple of hundred÷ 100,000 people to show the Russians that we could do it is instrumentalizing human life in a truly horrible way. And moreover, it unleashed, as you well know, possibilities that would have better been buried.

MOYERS: Have our views on evil changed over the years?

People in this country, people in the world still reflect÷ St. Augustine's famous question after the Goths sacked Rome, you know, in effect, in the City of God. He said, "Why does a good God allow this to happen? God could have turned the enemy back. Why does this happen?" That's the theological response.

NEIMAN: Yes. It's a theological response, but you know, I think it's really important to remember that not all theologians worry about this question. Or did, even in the middle ages. That is÷

MOYERS: But most÷ I hear it mostly from a parent who says, "Why did God allow my child to die?"

NEIMAN: It's the worst thing. And it's the thing for which I don't think there can be an answer. And of course then you have Dostoyevsky's response that in a world particularly in which children are tortured, he doesn't want to understand.

You see, there are two ways in which people have responded to the problem of evil. One is to say that, this is certainly Dostoyevsky's way. To say that one doesn't want to understand evil. That there's something obscene about trying to understand evil.

The other way to go, however, is to say if we don't understand evil, we're never going to be able to prevent even parts of it. And this is the line that I think Arendt was taking in her book which is to say look, let us look at it, let's analyze it, let's break it down into ordinary actions. Let's look at the psychology, let's look at the political structures.

Even at the cost — and this is of course one of the reasons why she was attacked so much for writing that book — even at the cost of being told I'm trivializing the problem, because understanding is always in a certain sense a way of making something seem ordinary, if you like. Making something seem banal.

It's taking away the mystery. If we don't take away the mystery we're not gonna be able to do anything about it.

MOYERS: You mean if we don't demythologize it?

NEIMAN: That's right.

MOYERS: We don't take it out of the language of theology and the supernatural?

NEIMAN: In theology you have a whole line of people who say "Look, God gave us reason and he meant us to use it. And so we need to think about God, the world, the meaning of life, why horrible suffering happens to people."

This is a tradition that you find in all three Western religions, starting in the early middle ages. It's a rationalist theological tradition. Alongside of it, of course, you have a fundamentalist tradition which says "Uh-uh. Don't think, believe. I believe that because it's absurd, you know, let's look at what the priests tell us. Let's look at what somebody's interpretation of the Bible tells us and stay with that."

MOYERS: And if God didn't do it because God is good, it must have been done by a creature that's the opposite of God, evil, the devil.

NEIMAN: Right. That's one way to go. What I think is really important is not to make this into a distinction between believers and non-believers. But between, if you like, rationalists and fundamentalists. Within both a theological tradition and a secular tradition. Because I think there's a lot of common ground that gets missed when people simply say, you know, "Are we gonna talk about it theologically? Are we gonna talk about it philosophically?" I think there's a lot of common ground.

MOYERS: And in both cases, it's trying to deal with something that undoes the sense of life as reasonable. Of the world as making sense, right?

NEIMAN: That's exactly right. That's exactly right.

MOYERS: And both believers and non-believers are trying to wrestle with how to make sense of a world where what we call evil happens.

NEIMAN: That is÷

MOYERS: Whether it's the loss of a child or Auschwitz.

NEIMAN: That is exactly right. And at the same time, you have also fundamentalist believers and certain secular people who don't wrestle with it at all. Who they÷ can I say this on the screen? Shit happens.

MOYERS: It happened.

NEIMAN: It happened.

MOYERS: It happened.

NEIMAN: It happened.

MOYERS: Fill in the blanks.

This is a downer subject. Your whole book, a beautiful book is your effort to come÷ to make sense of evil. Why do you spend so much time on this subject?

NEIMAN: My own interest came from two sources. The one is when I was 17 years old and I read Jean-Paul Sartre and a little Nietzsche and thought about the meaning of life and decided I wanted to study philosophy. Walked into philosophy courses where they were talking about you know epistemology, whether we know or not that things are really real.

Now a lot of people at that point walk out and say, "I'm in the wrong room. I'm gonna go study history or literature or politics or something that makes more sense." I stayed.

And I stayed because I was convinced that something about my original questions, about the meaning of life, were in fact part of the history of philosophy. It took me an awfully long time to prove it, but one of the things that I showed in this book is that great philosophers that people do study in major philosophy courses were in fact confronted, obsessed, concerned with exactly the same problem that 17 year old kids are concerned about when they walk into a philosophy class.

The other impulse had been to do with the time that I spent in Berlin. I came to Berlin in '82 thinking that I pretty much knew what there was to know about the Holocaust and I had come to terms with it or not simply by going to study in Berlin for a year and realized how very much more there was to know than was available over here, realized how much it was a part of the fabric of life, the way that people talked about food or named their children or raised their children or had their love affairs and were all still completely affected and infected by memories of the past. So, those two sources kept me going till I wrote this book.

MOYERS: Does the world make moral sense to you? By God, if you don't know we're in trouble.

NEIMAN: Look, some days it does; some days it doesn't. There's a Jewish legend that says that there are 36 righteous people at any point in time. One doesn't know who they are. They're not recognizable. It could be a beggar. It could be a king, whoever it could be.

But those 36 people keep the world going. Just simply that there are those people in the world, I think there's something deep about that. You know, if you like there's another, you know, old quote about better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

I mean I think as long as there is some number of people lighting candles, being righteous, the world makes enough moral sense to keep going, not more than that. It could make a good deal more. But moral sense, of course, is something that we have to make, and I guess that's the lesson of that story.

MOYERS: In the end of your book, you say meaning is a category we assign to life.

NEIMAN: That's right.

MOYERS: And we have to wrestle with it against that background.

NEIMAN: If life was meaningful from the beginning, there'd be a certain sense in which we wouldn't be free. We would be living in a play in which our roles were cast and given to us from the start. Meaning is something that we have to make, and we make it precisely in those ways by trying in some small way to create more justice, more sense, more intelligibility in whatever piece of the world we find ourselves surrounded by. That's what meaning is, if it were given to us.

MOYERS: So if evil is man-made, as we've discussed some evil is, and not God-ordained, how do we combat it?

NEIMAN: By individual acts of goodness. I mean, I can give you as little a recipe for what those are as I can give you a recipe for recognizing evil. We need to train ourselves to recognize both. And we train ourselves in a variety of ways, looking at history, doing a little philosophy, looking at politics, looking at literature.

I mean, these are all things that can teach us to look at particular cases, and recognize both acts of good and evil. But it won't be done by giving recipes.

MOYERS: The book is EVIL IN MODERN THOUGHT. Susan Neiman, thank you for joining us on NOW.

NEIMAN: Thank you.



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