“Evil,” a Cautionary Tale For Iran

In a poignant scene from Witness, detective John Book (Harrison Ford) recovers from a gunshot wound in the home of an Amish family in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The young boy he has been trying to protect has discovered his gun in a drawer; when Book comes upon him playing with it, he yells at the boy, seizes the gun and removes the bullets, telling him that he may now handle the weapon safely. At this precise moment, the boy’s grandfather enters the room and, without a word, takes his grandson—and the handgun—away.

We then see the grandfather and the boy seated together looking at the pistol, which sits silently on the table between them. Asked whether he would ever use such a thing, the boy replies that he would only shoot the bad man. The grandfather puzzles over this with the boy, and asks how he will know this bad man by sight; how he will gaze into the heart of this, or any, man. “I know what he [the bad man] does,” the boy pouts, “I have seen it.” At which point the grandfather reminds the boy that, in their tradition, vengeance and judgment are reserved for God, and he orders the boy to go outside to finish his chores.

The fact that the Amish use the word “bad” is instructive, especially in this scene where we know what the boy knows, and we know what he has seen. He has seen a police informant brutally murdered in a public restroom, his throat cut. The perpetrators are police officers, men who abuse their power and authority in countless, unspeakable ways simply to cover up a scam to make money. We might have expected the boy to call them “evil,” but he never does; that is a grown-up word, or at least it should be, and it takes time to be instructed in its proper use. His Amish grandfather offers no such instruction. The reason, I suspect, is that “evil” is also a violent word, and thus it is off-limits in a pacifist community like his.

Foreign “Evil”

One of the striking features of the original exchange between Sean Hannity and Rick Warren, as well as the commentary it has elicited, is that the term “evildoer” has not been parsed, as several other important terms have been. Warren blithely stated that it is government’s job “to punish evildoers. Not good-doers. Evildoers.” The reason, he believes, is that “the Bible says that evil cannot be negotiated with.” It is taken for granted that we will know this evildoer when we see him. Or her.

The rhetoric of good and evil returned to US political discourse in a singular way under Ronald Reagan, given his strong ties to Jerry Falwell’s so-called Moral Majority. There seems to be something vaguely religious in the terminology, and something vaguely irreligious about its opponents. We may recall that Reagan famously referred to the Soviet Union as “the evil empire,” well before he urged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.

Evil’s popularity as a political category has been on the uptick ever since. George W. Bush has been far more liberal with his use of the term, coining the infamous “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address, and frequently mentioning the global war on terror which, of course, is framed as the tireless battle between good and evil.

One problem with the rhetoric of evil as public policy pronouncement is that it tends to have unintended consequences, especially among the communities so named. Of the three evil “axes” Bush nominated in 2002—Iran, Iraq, and North Korea—our relations with none of them qualify as a foreign policy success under this administration. Talks with the North Koreans have gone nowhere in six long years (admittedly we hadn’t done much better before then). Iraq was invaded, dismantled, and, unlike Humpty Dumpty, not put back together again.

But Iran provides the most important cautionary tale when it comes to the language of evil in modern politics; it is that nation’s president that Hannity so recklessly proposes “taking out.” From the Iranian perspective, then, the needs of the moment are clear enough. They have been named as one of the three primary enemies of the United States. Iraq, which did not have nuclear weapons, was invaded. North Korea, which does have nuclear weapons, has not been invaded. Guess which country Iran wants to resemble? Hence a new verbal and political strategy emerges in the face of Iranian nuclear aspirations: call the president “evil,” then take him out.

Domestic “Evil”

The rhetoric of evil has played an essential role in US domestic politics as well. Playing on the standard post-Reagan caricature of “liberals” as values-relativists and immoralists, political conservatives trumpet the language of good and evil as one of the significant lines of demarcation distinguishing their vision of global politics from the left’s. The political left is incapable of calling anything or anyone evil. The right, by contrast, understands that there are some things worth dying for, some things worth fighting. The vigilance, like the readiness and self-certainty, is all.

It is not at all clear that liberals and progressives cannot use the language of evil, of course; they simply call different things by that name. More to the point, the thoughtful use of the language of evil is subtly related to another concept, that of sacred value. Torture is deemed evil, precisely because it violates the sacred value of the individual human person. Terror and other forms of indiscriminate violence are evil for similar reasons.

But such judgments are moral judgments, not political ones, and that is where liberals and conservatives really part ways. It seems a bit childish to invoke the language of evil in politics, when the rhetoric of good and bad will serve just as well. This involves a debate between the left and the right that goes back at least as far as the French Revolution and its aftermath.

How could a good revolution have come to such a bad end? How could the good guys become bad guys? And how could this have happened so quickly?

Hegel was the philosopher who offered the most devastating critique of political liberalism on precisely these grounds. He worried that universalizing political appeals grounded in impossibly vague concepts—like “evil,” or “human rights”—had distressing and very costly unintended consequences. What, Hegel asks, are the implications of saying that you are engaged in a war to defend human rights? What are the implications of saying that you are involved in a war pitting good against evil? Quite simply, the implications are that your enemy is opposed to human rights and, to the degree that he or she is actually evil, your enemy is scarcely human at all.

You can justify doing almost anything to such enemies in the name of your own alleged goodness, cautioned Hegel. The history of wars waged in the name of defending good against evil over the past two hundred years offers ample evidence of the sad truth in Hegel’s troubling contention.

Nominate someone as a “terrorist” in the context of the Bush Doctrine, for instance, and you have actually defined a new class of political nonentity, a person who possesses no rights as articulated by the United States or the United Nations. The US Constitution does not apply directly to such nonentities, and neither does the Geneva Convention, nor the UN Declaration on Human Rights [whose 60th anniversary is tomorrow, December 10th. Look for RD’s feature for the occasion—ed.]. And so these evil people sit, many of them, in an equally amorphous political zone at Guantanamo Bay, where there is no rule of law, only the state of exception, and the rule of exceptional force.

Here is one more area where words have consequences, and the sacred power of naming can create realities to match.

One of the most striking things about the security team President-elect Obama trotted out last week was the absence of the ideological community that gravitates toward the well-worn rhetoric of good and evil. These are practical people, by challenges. But they are also adults, and they bring a refreshing maturity and gravity that has been lacking among too many of the political performers over the past eight years.

Their silence when it comes to the language of good and evil may be deafening at first, but do not be fooled by the conservative claim that they are liberals who do not believe in such things. On the contrary, they treat these ideas with the seriousness and the sobriety they require. They understand that “evil” is not a word to be tossed around lightly, and not a word to be inserted into politics without deep prior reflection. That seems a welcome change, indeed.