Father George Rutler
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?
. . . .
A professor of humanities at Columbia University, he is the author of
The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil.
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
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
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. ...
. . . .
The author of several novels, most recently Atonement.
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. ...
. . . .
A professor of Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University, he is the author of Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq.
... 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.
. . . .
A professor of psychiatry and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
... 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. ...
. . . .
A professor of Islamic law, he teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles.
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
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
. . . .
An Orthodox rabbi, he is the vice president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City.
... 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
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
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.
. . . .
A Catholic priest and professor of theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in New York.
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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