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The Question of evil

"Today our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature. Our country has been deeply wounded. I certainly never dreamt that I would be the president where there is a war on our homefront. But the evildoers, they must not have known who they were attacking. In fact, the attacks have united our country, rallied a nation, and out of evil will come good."
President George W. Bush, Sept. 11, 2001

What was unusual about the president's words was his use of "evil" as a noun. Not merely evildoers or evil acts, but evil. Bush's language provoked controversy and touched a nerve. What is it we talk about when we talk about evil? Here are meditations on the meaning of evil, and our responses to it after Sept. 11, by Father George Rutler, a Catholic priest; Dasha Rittenberg, a Holocaust survivor; Andrew Delbanco, a professor of humanities and literature; Ian McEwan, a novelist; Kanan Makiya, a professor of Middle Eastern studies; Ann Ulanov, a professor of psychiatry and religion; Khaled Abou el-Fadl, an Islamic scholar; Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfield; and Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a Catholic priest and professor of theology.

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Father George Rutler
Catholic priest

For those who except Christ as the Savior, they have to recognize the fact that our Lord spoke very vividly and intimately of evil, of Satan. He doesn't talk in abstract terms of evil. He addresses evil as a person. When he confronts this man possessed with evil, he says, "Come out of him." He is speaking to something other than the man.

I can only describe evil by giving you what I remember. Not what I read in books, but what I with my own eyes and ears heard and saw. Evil. What happened to my parents? They were the last people to leave the ghetto and they were taken to Auschwitz. I know that they were burned into ashes. My mother, my father, my three brothers, my younger sister, my uncles, my aunts, their children, burned into ashes. That's all I have seen in humanity is evil. I have seen hangings. I have seen shootings. I saw one man, his name was Mischka. He was a Ukranian. He was drunk. He would just go killing every single day. He had to have his blood on his hands -- Jewish blood. Evil. You want to hear more? So? All the ghetto life, the hunger, the poverty, the lice that were crawling on my body. Evil. Evil people just patting their dogs and then killing a child because it was Jewish. Evil? OK? Hitting, slapping, for no reason, because you were not even in line with the next person. Being hit by dogs and bitten -- the blood running out of your feet. Evil. People would go to sleep every night and get up in the morning and eat and drink and be evil. Were they too created in the image of God? I don't know. What does it say about God?

Dasha Rittenberg
Holocaust survivor

. . . .

Andrew Delbanco
A professor of humanities at Columbia University, he is the author of The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil.

a photo of Andrew Delbanco

I guess I've always been interested in this question of how people have thought about, talked about, written about, tried to come to terms with the reality of evil. ... It had seemed to become an abstraction, or some embarrassing outmoded theological concept, to my generation. And so I felt, I guess, a sort of gnawing need to, at least for my own sake, figure out some way of understanding what it was or where it came from or how one ought to respond to it when it made itself appear.

And so it did, again, on Sept. 11, 2001. And suddenly it was no longer an academic question, and I think my generation understood in a new way that the norms of life, the expectations of ordinary life can disappear in an instant and nothing is the same anymore. ...

I think it's a word we don't want to use casually. It's a word that we don't want to use to excuse ourselves from these characteristics by pointing the finger at somebody else and saying, "There's evil. Go get it, and rid the world of that person or that point of view, and everything will be all right." It'll be extinguished and we have nothing to do with it; we have no relation to it. I think we don't want to go in that direction. ...

But at the same time to pretend that an event like that which took place on Sept. 11, 2001, can be explained with the ordinary language of politics or psychology seems to me quite inadequate to what happened. We really did experience evil on Sept. 11. And we need to think about it. And we need to understand it in order to be able to cope with it, both in others and in ourselves. ...

Hannah Arendt was trying to find a way of understanding this completely affectless bureaucratic personality that she saw in the utterly impassive, unresponsive face of Adolf Eichmann in the glass booth -- when he was on trial in Jerusalem -- and what she came to believe is that he had sort of shut down his critical faculties, his thinking faculties had been shut down and he was acting as just a cog in the machine; as just a functionary; as just a follower of orders, and his mind was focused on his duty rather than on the consequences of what he was doing. And I find that a somewhat persuasive account of what a certain number of the people involved in the Holocaust of the Nazi years were probably like.

I don't think that's what we experienced on September 11th, because there was a fervor ... on the part of witnesses who were sympathetic to what was done, a mood of celebration and almost ecstatic response to the event that doesn't seem to me consistent with what Arendt was describing. It wasn't banal. It had something ... between a carnival and a horror show about it. It did require a lot of systematic planning, a lot of efficiency -- and of course it was an event that demonstrated how the technological wonders of Western civilization could be turned against us. But banal I don't think is the word that comes to mind. There was nothing banal about either what happened or about those who made it happen. ...

I have felt for some time that American culture has lost touch with the reality of evil, with the presence of evil in the world, and that that put us in a position of considerable vulnerability both to forces outside ourselves and to ourselves; that without some concept that's at least close to what the religious tradition calls "sin," we're handicapped in our ability to be sufficiently critical of ourselves.

We need to ask ourselves questions about the consequences of our actions ... What are we implicated in? What kind of behaviors in the world are we implicated in? And I think you have to allow moral language to enter into that discussion. You can't keep it out; you can't say what's happening on the other side of the world has nothing to do with me. ...

. . . .

Ian McEwan
The author of several novels, most recently Atonement.

a photo of Ian McEwan

I don't really believe in evil at all. I mean, I don't believe in God, and I certainly don't, therefore, believe in some sort of supernatural or trans-historical force that somehow organizes life on dark or black principles. I think there are only people behaving -- and sometimes behaving monstrously. And sometimes their monstrous behavior is so beyond our abilities to explain it, we have to reach for this numinous notion of evil. But I think it's often better to try and understand it in real terms ... either political or psychological terms. There's something, at the same time, very, very attractive about this word. ... It's a great intensifier. It just lets us say that we thoroughly abhor this behavior.

But it's quite clear, as a species ... in our nature, we are capable of acts of extraordinary love and kindness, and inventiveness, and mutual aid. And, on the other side, we are capable of acts of extraordinary destruction. And I think it's inherent. I think one of the great tasks of art is really to explore that. ...

But I'm a little suspicious of the way we want to throw up our hands and just say, "Well, it's evil." It's us. You know? And any reflection on, for example, the Holocaust, probably our greatest, lowest moment in modern history, has to finally reflect on what it is we seem to be able to be capable of. Especially once we have the power of technology to kill on a vast scale. ...

I think we have to beware, too, of treating September the 11th as the only and most spectacular event of human cruelty. There have been many, many acts of cruelty. Some of them on an even larger scale. So I can't accept the notion that somehow this punctures our understanding of human nature. We have before us, in the 20th century alone, acts of unbelievable depravity. Deliberate, methodical, bureaucratic, technological destruction of human lives in the Holocaust, for example. ... And we see it again now in those men, in those awful lunatics with their fixed beliefs. We see it again. ...

. . . .

Kanan Makiya
A professor of Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University, he is the author of Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq.

a photo of Kanan Makiya

... Evil is something that, when you see it, when you know it, it's intimate. It's almost sensual. That is why people who have been tortured know it by instinct. They don't need to be told what it is, and they may have a very hard time putting it into words. ... That's the nature of the phenomenon. It's hard to put into words. But you have to have that intimacy with it, that kind of shoulder-to-shoulder rubbing ... where you have to be able to see yourself there. Otherwise, it runs this terrible danger of becoming something someone else is and not you.

Evil, while it is very definitely different from something that's "very bad" ... is a human thing. It's humanly explicable. But it is only so when we can touch it and see ourselves in its place. That's why one of the most brilliant observations about evil ever made, I think, came from Hannah Arendt in her book on the Eichmann trial, the phrase, "banality of evil."

There's a deep truth to that. When I handled the paperwork of the Iraqi bureaucracy, as it has killed tens of thousands of its own citizens, I see evil. ... I have a register which lists 397 eliminated villages, Kurdish villages in northern Iraq. ... The work is called "The Register of Eliminated Villages." You flip the pages, beautifully scripted and done with a pencil. Then the writer of this book has covered it, folded it very neatly with a nice, great big book cover made of paper, with great big white flowers against a red background. It's a very decorative, pretty thing. ... You look at this person who has taken such immaculate care of this book, which records the destruction of 397 Kurdish villages. ... You look at the book and you know you're touching evil somehow. ...

Suggesting evil is human doesn't mean we can always understand it, or doesn't mean there's only one way of understanding it. It's sort of like a great work of art. You can never fully absorb it. It's got many dimensions. It lives on through time, in different ways. ... We go around it. We try to look at it from different prisms and angles. We try to appropriate it to ourselves, via readings or interpretations or observations or drawings or films. But it's evil, in the sense that it is never fully explicable in some easy, pat way. ...

The hijackers bring in a different element of evil. ... They have invented a form of it. ... Not fully invented it, but they've carried it to an extreme. ... I would say it's this sort of perfection of the death instinct. It is the infatuation, rapture, in the event of killing one's self and others, of death, as many people as possible. That's what they bring that's so new -- this ability to be at one with the desire to die and to inflict death on as many people as possible -- not as an instrument, not as a means ... that they may serve in some other, larger picture, but it's the action -- forgetting the politics of it entirely, put that aside. Once a person has entered into the frame of mind, the politics may have been necessary to bring them there, but they have entered into the frame of mind where they are going to pursue the death wish to its ultimate, fullest extreme. Now, how do you then think of a way of doing that, an absolutely diabolical way of doing that, that has the qualities of a spectacle, a great spectacle, and mass destruction? To have elevated it to this level is what is new, terrifying and probably, in the end, evil, truly evil, about what happened. And it is recognizing it as evil that allows us to change the discourse about it. So that's why the word is important. Especially for Muslims and Arabs to recognize it as such and eject it out of themselves and out of their tradition, which hasn't been done yet.

. . . .

Ann Ulanov
A professor of psychiatry and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

a photo of ulanov

... From the psychological side, there are a whole lot of theories that say destructiveness comes from privation and deprivation. It isn't something in itself; it's from bad parenting or low self-esteem. What religion ... offers to that psychology is a recognition that evil is a force. ...

I think the attacks of Sept. 11 show that evil can be a horrific force, and it's opened our eyes to the force of evil in other societies. The suffering of rape camps, of gulags, of forced famines, of false imprisonments, of indiscriminate bombings, of people gripped by power-mad archetypal forces, and they're just going to wipe out whole bunches of people because they don't fit the image they have.

Evil is a mysterious force. So it's very hard to say, "Oh, that is evil." I think one of the things people have faced since 9/11 is [that] its horrific impact stirs up any conscious or unconscious images one has had before of random violence, of innocent suffering or just outright trauma. So it's trauma on top of trauma. ...

This class I was starting to teach was ... on [the concept of] aggression. So I shaped the course after Sept. 11 to focus on [the question], Can human destructiveness be transformed? As in all my teaching, I presented four or five psychoanalytic theories about human destructiveness. Then I presented some theological theories, and bullied, cajoled, wooed, and got the students to think what their point of view was. Where would they come out? They had to answer now, after Sept. 11. Well, you can't ask that of a student if you're not doing that yourself. So I found my view of evil as the making something of nothing -- an active force of absence to vitiate, annihilate, destroy -- strengthened. How else could one fly a whole plane full of people -- these were fully staffed planes, passengers, crews -- how could you fly all those people, plus your own colleagues, your own compatriots, into a building where thousands of people were working? How could you do that? It wouldn't be enough to just be identified with your cause. You're serving the cause. You'd have to go against every instinct, and these were not adolescent young men. These were older men, some with families, some with children.

It wouldn't be enough to be painted as a hero after you were dead or that your family would be rewarded. There would have to be some experience of being in the grip of something. Now they thought they were serving a good. On the receiving end, it's clear this is an evil. Why? Because it is so destructive. It's so beyond the bounds of human discourse, the discourse of war.

So I believe that evil, yes, you can get to it yourself. You can go to the place you've been hurt or threatened to be destroyed, or pieces of you have been destroyed, mangled, treated as if they are of no value. You can get to your outrage, your absolute determination to retaliate for vengeance, and you can understand how you feel that because of something done to you. But deeper than that, it's like an undertow of the ocean. It's like an undertow current. There's something that you contact that's much bigger than what you did to me or what I'm going to do to you. And you get caught in that; you're in something that's outside yourself. The personal explanation is not enough. In the larger, psychological explanation -- archetypal pattern of energy, unconscious instincts of hate and cannibalism -- even that isn't enough. That's involved, too. It's as if one has a spell cast on one. But you feel you're caught in what the New Testament calls "principalities and powers." It's a power that catches you, and you are not enough by yourself to defeat it. It's universal.

So we can say after Sept. 11, "Oh, bin Laden, he is the personification of evil." Maybe he is, maybe he isn't. But even if you say that, evil is bigger. So the question is, then, what does one do in the face of evil? You respect that it's there, that it's bigger. You're not naïve enough to think that if you get the right analysis, you get the right theology, somehow, voila! Everything's going to be fine. It's not going to be fine.

What one has to come back to always is, what do you do with the bad, and how do you answer the question of why do the innocent suffer? Is there an answer? And then I think the only answers are religious. ...

. . . .

Khaled Abu el-Fadl
A professor of Islamic law, he teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles.

a photo of Khaled Abu el-Fadl

How can you kneel in submission to a god who authors evil? I follow a school within Islam ... [that] said God doesn't pre-ordain everything; God doesn't write everything somewhere, and God is not the creator of evil, is not the maker of evil, and also is not the creator of, maker of, all good. There is so much good that is the product of my decision, my consciousness, my will as a human being. ...

I don't think that evil is a social infraction or a violation of a norm. I know that evil has a feeling. ... And evil, it feels in my experience like a stillness, an emptiness, an absence of life. It has this nearly stale existence to it that suddenly you get the feeling that nothing lives, nothing exists. And that feeling then allows for the emergence of actively ugly and scary things. But evil, it's as if experiencing something where you just feel, not only that life is absent, but ... the breaking down, the tearing apart of life.

The Quran, which I believe in as a Muslim, when it talks about evil at one point, it says [that it is] the undoing of what God has put together. And the remarkable thing is that is consistent with my expression, my experience of evil. Evil, it breaks down your memories. Evil breaks down your will. Evil breaks down your ability to feel or to appreciate. ...

I believe that demons do exist. I think their will is contingent upon ours. In other words they exploit our own weakness. ... You can open the door to evil by failing to affirmatively build beauty and undoing and breaking down things. Whether it's breaking down, undoing a human being, or undoing the product of what human beings built. ...

When I look at [bin Laden's] face, I see someone who has not engaged in any beauty, any building. ... I can't imagine that he can appreciate beauty. ... I remember, when I was in Egypt, [bin Laden's lieutenant Ayman] al-Zawahari at the time he was a medical doctor and he had turned extremist. Al-Zawahari had a lot of students. ... And I remember that al-Zawahari and his students never spoke about building anything, creating anything. They never spoke about art, music, beauty. In fact, they considered music to be a sin. Art and beauty to be unnecessary. And they only spoke about one thing, and one thing only, and that's destruction. Breaking, destroying, maiming, undoing. That is evil. That is the heart of evil. ...

I have seen enough. I've seen enough. I've seen a considerable amount, whether it's in the realm of people getting killed in a raid, military raid, bombing. Or even more tragic situations where people die in extreme pain inflicted by other human beings. Most of which it's too painful to even talk about.

I can share with you this part: that what you observe is, on the part of that who embodies the evil, that who is inflicting the pain [or] the agony, is a remarkable abandon. That's the only way I can describe it. ... As if they detach themselves for that period of time, whether it's a minute, or an hour or more or whatever. They detach themselves from life itself. It's as if they become breathing, functioning, moving, but not alive. And it is in this state that they engage in destruction of life. Destruction of whatever is before them. ...

. . . .

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield
An Orthodox rabbi, he is the vice president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City.

a photo of hirschfield

... I guess for me the discussion of evil starts [with], "If it's easily defined, it probably isn't really evil." That's all the stuff that we call "evil" that just makes us pissed off. It probably isn't evil. Evil is the stuff that is so overwhelming, that is so big that it defies categorization. ...

The place I think I first felt that kind of evil was actually walking in Birkenau, in the death camp in Poland; Auschwitz, too. I think that I felt that that was real evil, because everything I had been trained as a Jew, as a rabbi, all that stuff, was insufficient to the moment. For me, one of the definitions of evil [is] when you realize you're up against something that nothing has fully prepared you for, and yet it demands a response. If you can rely on all the stuff you came in with, it's probably not evil. It's probably bad, and it probably needs to be dealt with, but it's not evil in that big sense.

To be some place where there's that much death and that much silence, and nothing, nothing, nothing seems to hold it together -- that's evil. That's it. I think I even felt it more there than at Ground Zero. Maybe it's just the Ground Zero stuff is too new to know. It's too new to know. At the very least, I can imagine fighting what I saw at Ground Zero. So maybe it's not evil in the same way. I don't even exactly know how you fight what I've experienced on the trips to Poland that I've made.

... Two things happened after Sept. 11 with our use of "evil," and I feel torn. Part of me actually knows it's very important because we're using the word "evil" now. We were afraid to do that, and that was a mistake, because if you can't label anything evil, a kind of paralysis sets in. ... There's also a lot of cheap evil in play. Everything that bothers me is now evil. Nothing will get accomplished if I can't label it evil. So I feel really torn. We had thousands of years in which -- religion especially -- boy, did we love evil. We thrived on evil. Show me evil, and I've got work to do. But it was cheap evil. Usually evil there was just synonymous with folks who didn't agree with me, dress like me, eat like me or look like me. It was very mobilizing and very devastating in ugly ways.

Then we go through a phase, maybe until Sept. 11, in modern Western culture, [where] nothing is evil. We knew how much damage evil had done, as language and as discourse. So we got rid of it completely. But that wasn't helpful, either, for the reasons I said before -- because it paralyzes you if you can't make any claims about anything.

So now we've got to figure out, How do you put evil back into play, but not have it be this self-serving definition, which is, how do I use language [that doesn't] provoke someone to go to war to kill anything they don't already agree with? ...

When I looked at bin Laden's face, and there's that tape of him sitting with his friends and they're laughing about the amount of destruction and having their olives and tea -- I think I'm supposed to feel a kind of rage that I don't feel. Because, is he evil? I don't know what that would mean. I know what it means to name what happened as evil. And it's not because I'm afraid to call him evil. I just think ... if evil can be located in one human being, it's actually too small. ... He's one person, and things like this don't happen because of one person. Labeling him evil makes it too easy. Get rid of him; get rid of the problem. It doesn't work that way.

. . . .

Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete
A Catholic priest and professor of theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in New York.

a photo of Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete

As a priest, I deal with good and evil all the time. Well, first of all, as a human being, I live good and evil all the time, within me. As a priest, it's my business. I hear confessions, I give spiritual advice; I deal with moral issues all the time. So each time, I recognize myself in all sides of the problems that come to me ... in human situations. And as an intellectual, as a theologian, I study it. I have read the history of the great debates about what is good and what is evil, how are these related throughout the history of thought. Great issues, great problems, all that.

But 9/11 was different. There was a reality present, something about it that was different. And I thought, what can it be? Is it the magnitude of this? Or the number of people? The explosion, the drama of it? Was it the incessant looking at it on television? No, no, I tried all these things, but there was more. There was more I had to pay attention to. I thought, take the Holocaust for example. From the point of view of magnitude and of horror ... it's unimaginable. And yet, Hitler at least hated a concrete people. He hated the Jews. He wanted to destroy all Jews. In fact, in order to somehow make it possible, he had to deny their humanity so he could wipe them out.

But here there were Jews present, there were Christians, there were Buddhists, there were atheists, there were Muslims. There were rich, there were poor. There were CEOs, there were waiters. There were newlywed, there were widowers. It was humanity. The Twin Towers, the whole region is an affirmation of human dreams, of human ambition, of human desire, of the hope of human progress, of human struggle for survival. It's humanity, and that had to be destroyed because this was hatred for humanity that inspired this deed. ...

And I knew that there was one human way to respond: it was to stare at it, to face it, not to go away; above all, not to look for explanations -- certainly, no philosophical, theological, or religious explanations, even less political, economic, foreign policy, the Palestinian problem, American foreign policy, conspiracies. Immediately the whole "Yes, but" brigade came out to explain it all away. And I knew that would be a betrayal of reality. ... The cause here is a passionate hatred of humanity. ...

What does that mean? It means a boundary has been broken that opens up the floodgates to unstoppable horror, because human is all we are, all we can be, all we can appeal to. It's our safety net. ... But here, the more you show your humanity, the more you're hated. ...

To me, to distract one from this, to look for explanations, is obscene. It's an offense against the reality of what happened -- an offense against our humanity -- to look for political explanations, economic explanations, diplomatic explanations. ... The people who did this, who planned it, who brought it about, I don't know what their theology or their ideology is. I take them at their word; they died with the name of God on their lips. People say they were sincere; well, yes, they were. ... This is an act for them that was a sincere act, the worship of their God. I take them at their word. Does that make them any less evil? Oh, but no, that precisely is the monstrosity. If they were not sincere, it would be a terrible thing, but ... it is the sincerity, it is the free will. I mean, they willed this to happen. They willed the destruction of humanity, of humanness, of everybody in that place on that day at the World Trade Center. This was a freely willed act, very sincere. And this sincerity is one of the horrible characteristics of the face of evil I saw that day. ...

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