Ethics Forums

The Rhetoric of Evil
Lawrence M. Hinman

San Diego Union-Tribune, November 28, 2001, p. B-7. Op-ed.

            "Our responsibility to history” President Bush told us in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks,”is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil."  Indeed, President Bush has consistently used the language of good and evil to describe and denounce the terrorists and their attacks against the United States.  In so doing, he has cast the United States in the role of the champion of the good over the forces of evil throughout the world.

            Such language ought to be used with caution for three reasons.  First, ridding the world of evil is a unconscionably vague foreign policy goal—as well as an unattainable goal.  If we set out to rid the world of evil, where do we stop?  When do we declare victory? To think in these terms is not only to establish the United States as the world’s policeman, but also as its guardian angel.  It would require intervention throughout the world in countless countries. 

            Even a more modest goal of ridding the world of terrorists—and those who harbor and support them—would result in countless interventions.  Where do we draw the line?  Do we send in commandos to root out the IRA, surely a terrorist organization that has killed innocent women and children?  Do we attack countries that provide financial support for terrorist organizations like the IRA?  Do we send armed forces into Chiapas to round up guerrillas?  Do we attempt to round up anti-Castro extremists and terrorists?  Obviously not.  In practical terms, a policy of eradicating evil would simply be a policy of attacking those whose “evil” we don’t like and cloaking our behavior under the mantle of the near-mythic language of a struggle between good and evil. 

            There is a second reason for using such language with great caution.  The language of good and evil is precisely the language of the fundamentalist extremists who have attacked us.  To many extreme fundamentalists, the United States is the embodiment of evil, and they see the future in terms of an on-going battle between good and evil.  In this respect, President Bush and the Taliban have one thing in common: both see the coming conflict between the United States and the terrorist guerrillas as a conflict between good and evil.  Indeed, the Taliban’s name for its secret police is Ministry of Enforcement of Virtue and Suppression of Vice.   Both are seeing the world in terms of an epic battle between good and evil; they just disagree about which one is good and which is evil.

            From the fictional character of Elmer Gantry onward, we are all familiar with the religious figure who preaches forcefully against evil and, in secret moments, engages in the very vices he denounces so harshly in public.  Such individuals are split internally, unable to integrate what the psychologist Carl Jung called the shadow side of their personality into their public self.  This splitting of the self is the final danger of seeing the world starkly in terms of good and evil: it is all too easy to see the other as purely evil and ourselves as goodness incarnate—and, in the process, to deceive ourselves about our own shortcomings. 

            Attention to this language of evil is important because words shape—and sometimes distort—policy.  If we see our enemy as the devil incarnate, we will feel justified in taking extreme measures to rid the world of such a force.  Furthermore, we will fail to understand what experiences and ideas led our enemies to their actions and their view of us.  Finally, seeing our enemy in these terms precludes the possibility of compromise, of attempting to craft a world in which we may coexist.  Instead, we can only try to eradicate them from the world—and this is precisely the mentality to attacks like the ones we saw last week.  We can do better than to emulate our enemy’s way of thinking.