Rhetoric of Evil
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
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
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
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
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.