The loose talk of a "war on terror" makes as much sense as a declaration of war upon the wind or a declaration of war on the sunrise. The Reverend Dr. Steven Paulikas offers an erudite and dispassionate meditation on evil as a military opponent. If this is (fair & balanced) theodical analysis, so be it.
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How Should We Respond To "Evil"?
By Steven Paulikas
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
For a student of evil, Stephen Colbert’s exchange with Bill O’Reilly on “The Late Show” two days after the Orlando killings was an education. “This guy was evil,” O’Reilly said of the gunman, Omar Mateen.
Colbert immediately asked, “What is the proper response to evil?”
“Destroy it,” O’Reilly answered. “You don’t contain evil, because you can’t. You destroy evil. ISIS is evil, and Mateen is evil.”
O’Reilly’s attitude toward evil exemplifies the ethical justification for the most consequential American policy decisions of the past 15 years — and, if we consent, for those that will be made in reaction to the Orlando massacre and others like it. Recent history and philosophy have taught that violence is the surest outcome of blithely ascribing the quality of evil to another. At best, this process may supplant the thing we brand evil for a time, but the notion that evil can be “destroyed” is an ethical version of a fool’s errand. We have an opportunity now to reassess the politics of evil and to consider responses to it that would mitigate rather than amplify human suffering.
I was drawn to thought on evil as a seminarian trying to make sense of the intractable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that framed my formation for the priesthood. I remembered when President George W. Bush described Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address. Even now, the phrase evokes an instinctual sense of supernatural dread, which was precisely its purpose. As the presidential speechwriters David Frum and Michael Gerson were preparing the address, they tweaked the line from the slightly more benign “axis of hatred” to make it sound more “theological.”
For most of Western intellectual history, the study of evil was reserved for theology. From Augustine and Aquinas to Luther and Calvin, Christian thinkers were preoccupied with the “problem of evil,” or the question of how a good God could allow bad to exist in our world. When Immanuel Kant introduced the concept of a radical evil that exists outside the limits of reason and will, the eternal problem of evil was released from the church’s exclusive grasp.
Perhaps because of its hybrid religious and secular credentials, our concept of evil exerts an almost mystical power over society’s impulse to make order out of chaos and despair. As Susan Neiman writes in her landmark study, Evil in Modern Thought (2002), “The problem of evil can be expressed in theological or secular terms, but it is fundamentally a problem about the intelligibility of the world as a whole.”
Doubtless, Frum and Gerson were striving to answer the country’s need for intelligibility amid the new and frightening sense of insecurity at the time. Yet as events unfolded, the axiomatic and quasi-theological assertion of evil pervading the entire Iraqi regime became the incontrovertible ethical framework for violent action.
As it turns out, there is a difference between good theology and bad theology — at least if we consider the exponential escalation of violence to be a bad thing. The almost 3,000 deaths in the Septtember 11 attacks were answered by an estimated 460,000 deaths in Iraq alone, including more American combatant deaths than civilians who died in the World Trade Center. Despite this high cost, evil is, if we accept a point on which O’Reilly actually agrees with President Obama, as plentiful in the region as it ever was and just as threatening to the United States.
As someone entrusted with a role of moral authority, I am deeply unsettled by this path from evil in political rhetoric to violence. Our inability to answer fundamental questions about the invocation of evil in our public discourse has only increased human suffering. It is imperative that we demand clarity in our common understanding of evil. How can we be sure something is evil and not simply opposed to our interests? Can evil ever fully be destroyed, and if not, is there no point at which we can cease our crusade against it? If evil is absolute, does one have an absolute right to use any means necessary to obliterate it?
These questions led me to the work of Paul Ricoeur, a prolific philosopher whose concerns grew, in part, from his contact with manifest evil in 20th-century France. Ricoeur was orphaned when his father was killed in World War I. While serving in the French military, he was captured by the Germans in 1940 and spent five years as a prisoner of war. Like that of other European intellectual contemporaries whose lives were shaped by the unrelenting violence of their time, Ricoeur’s work strives to create channels through which strangers and enemies can observe a common humanity in one another.
Ricoeur agrees with many other thinkers that evil is not a thing per se, but rather exists in a sort of black hole of thought, an aporia. This fact alone complicates arguments for the destruction of evil: how do you obliterate something that has no substance? For Ricoeur, we conceive of evil through the realm of myth, or grand narratives that express common human experience. Myth is not false; rather, it encapsulates truth about subjects like evil that cannot be perceived fully through reason alone. In this sense, “the axis of evil” is, arguably, a kind of myth, an explanation that makes sense of calamity in a world we think of as otherwise good and in which we can all participate.
Because evil exists beyond the limits of reason, what matters for Ricoeur is not that we identify evil, but that we respond to it appropriately. He rightly observes that the tragedy of evil is not the act committed, but the experience of the victim. Separating evil perpetrated from evil suffered shifts the concern from what or who is evil to the best possible action in the face of it, which according to him is “not a solution, but a response.”
In the common conception, solutions to evil require retribution, and the most obvious way to achieve retribution is through violence. Responses, on the other hand, engender what Ricoeur calls “wisdom,” an unwavering commitment to relieve and prevent suffering. Any violence used in a response to evil would, therefore, be focused on the alleviation of suffering rather than the attempt to stamp out evil where we think we see it.
We have ample evidence that our solutions to evil after September 11 were unsuccessful. If the objective of our military intervention in the Middle East was to eradicate points on the axis of evil, our assertion of the continued presence of evil in the region points to a grand failure. What greater tool is at our disposal to destroy evil than the full power, skill and bravery of the military of the United States and its allies? If force alone were sufficient to destroy it, we already would have won the game of whack-a-mole we have been playing with evil for a decade and a half.
This knowledge is not deterring leaders from calling for more solutions rather than responses post-Orlando, even as evil is front and center in political discourse as almost never before. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced plans for destroying the Islamic State’s “parent tumor in Iraq and Syria” because the group “wants to spread its evil ideology and to plot or inspire attacks on Americans.” Two days after the massacre in Orlando, Governor Rick Scott of Florida proposed retaliation against what he perceived to be the source of evil perpetrated against his state: “We’re fed up. We want ISIS destroyed. Radical Islam does not belong here. If you believe in evil, we’re doing to do something about it.”
President Obama’s speech in Orlando, however, offered an intriguing glimpse into what a long-term response to evil might look like. Amid the usual call for the destruction of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda as retaliation for the week’s “evil, hateful act” was a sincere focus on the experience of the victims — in other words, on evil suffered, not the evil perpetrated. He opened the speech with a long description of his meetings with families of the dead, linking their grief with that of the “American family.” Perhaps almost eight years of an exhausting cat-and-mouse struggle with evil drone targets and surge enemies has given the president a Ricoeurian sense of wisdom in his final months in office. His successor would be wise indeed to note what he has learned. Ω
[Steven Paulikas, an Episcopal priest and rector of All Saints’ Church in Brooklyn. He received a BA (comparative literature) from Yale University, an MPhil (European literatire) from Cambridge University, an MDiv from General Theological Seminary, and is a doctoral student in theology and religion at Oxford University.]
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