On the Category of Evil

Variant of the jihadist black flag. This particular version is used by the "Islamic State of Iraq" and by al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Variant of the jihadist black flag. This particular version is used by the “Islamic State of Iraq” and by al-Shabaab in Somalia.

The President considers what kind and how much of a military engagement the U.S. should undertake against the “cancer” of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, high-ranking administration officials (the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of State) characterize the Islamic State as a “barbaric” and “apocalyptic” terrorist organization that must be “contained,” “defeated,” and “destroyed” because it poses an “imminent threat.” This enemy is “beyond anything we’ve seen,” the Defense Secretary insists, “so we must prepare for everything” (The Guardian, 22 August 2014).

Columnist Richard Cohen, originally a supporter of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, says now “we are once again up against the question of evil.” The slow and painful decapitation of photojournalist James Foley in the name of the Islamic State was an act of “pure evil.” This enemy “murders with abandon. It seems to love death the way the fascists once did.” It “massacres” Shiite Muslims and kills Yazidis, taking “as plunder their women as concubines.”

This reincarnation of the Nazis, Cohen asserts, is “beyond explication.” It is not a reaction to the U.S. war in Iraq. It would be “futile and tasteless” to lay the blame on the West, colonialists of old, Zionists of today, or the rich and powerful. No one can understand a Hitler. Any attempt to explain the inexplicable amounts to a justification of “evil returned, evil that can be understood only as beyond understanding.” Evil simply “needs to be eliminated.” The “category of evil remains useful” because “it assigns agency where it belongs” (“The Islamic State is Evil Returned,” Washington Post, 25 August 2014).

What are we to make of this category of evil?   It proscribes any attempt to understand the causes, motives, and reasons behind the violence. It exonerates the U.S. for past, present, and future actions in the Middle East. It stuns our mental faculties. It blinds us to the complexity of the situation. It commits us to a narrow mind-set of eradication as the only viable option. It exposes would-be critics to the charge of condoning atrocity.

The language of evil short-circuits deliberation and stunts democracy. It reduces everything short of warfare to degrees of appeasement. Its moral outrage is selective and self-righteous.

The rhetoric of evil also perpetuates itself. George W. Bush declared a global war on evildoers, warned that the world was threatened by an “axis of evil,” and set out to destroy the regime of Saddam Hussein, which he said harbored weapons of mass destruction and committed unspeakable acts of murder, torture, and rape against its own people. The U.S. invasion of Iraq—a war of choice—toppled the dictator and exacerbated the troubles at hand. The resistance, which we called insurgents, has now morphed into the Islamic State. One war on evil begs for another.



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