By WILLIAM E. CONNOLLY
Duke University Press Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8223-3554-2
Chapter One PLURALISM AND EVIL
The Experience of Evil
On 9/11 I heard about the first plane attack while I was in a colleague's office. We did not appreciate its scale at first. After the second plane crashed into the other tower a staff member announced that the university was closed for the day. I felt a crushing need to go home. Riding there on a bike, the horror of it overwhelmed me. I stopped a couple of times to steady myself and to wipe my glasses clean of tears. By the time I reached home images of the first tower collapsing were playing and replaying on CNN. It showed bodies catapulting to the earth. Images of the second collapse soon followed. As the images sank into the visceral register of being, feelings of desolation and uncertainty sank in with them.
Something roughly akin to this had occurred before, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the killings of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. The experiences, I say, were comparable, though they were not as devastating. My mind wandered to those earlier events the next day, triggered no doubt by the trauma the tower attacks had spawned.
I notepublic events close to home not because they embody the most horrific instances. The holocausts against Amerindians in the New World, against Jews, homosexuals, and Romana in Europe, and the devastation wreaked upon the people of Kosovo took more horrific tolls, for starters. I focus on this set to bring home the link between public recourse to the language of evil and crushing experiences of surprise, devastation, and uncertainty.
During the Cuban missile crisis no one died, but there was a palpable sense that it might issue in a nuclear conflagration bringing human life on earth to a close. That anxiety was not tied to the conviction that one agent alone was responsible for the danger. The language of evil was thus muted, despite the awesome stakes. The danger flowed from an arms race between two highly armed nuclear states, a race that had spiraled out of control. So the experience of tragic possibility overwhelmed the idea of unilateral evil. The three assassinations, while traumatic, were not widely accompanied by a sense of the tragic. Those killings were officially absorbed into the category of crime, though many suspected that such a resolution did not exhaust them. Who are the guilty parties? How can they be brought to justice? Those were the questions.
The public experience of 9/11 was linked both to the shock accompanying violence against a country that generally treated itself as exempt from violent attack and uncertainty as to how to characterize the act. A categorical uncertainty filtered into the heart of the matter, an uncertainty both disclosed and muted by the word "terrorism." The terrorists were not states; their action was unannounced; they did not use traditional military weapons; they did not attack military targets; and they did not declare traditional territorial objectives. Yet the event produced a large number of casualties; it was tied to a struggle of civilizational proportions; and the nonstate perpetrators defined themselves as enemies of America. The term "terrorism" fills a zone of indiscernibility between crime within the orbit of a state and war between states. Terrorism is bonded to evil, because of the surprise it engenders, because its victims are not military agents, because its perpetrators are not recognized as state agents in a world of legitimate states, and because it points to the insufficiency of the categories of territorial state, international system, war, crime, and justice through which people seek to come to terms with contemporary life.
A world with terrorism is not only more dangerous than many Americans had allowed themselves to believe: it harbors actors and events that unsettle established concepts of territory, faith, law, morality, order, and war. How could a God allow such acts? Should the perpetrators be brought to criminal justice or treated as military opponents? Should we tie them to the states in which they are based? If so, how many states are on the list? Does it include Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Palestine? What about Israel, or the United States if its secret operatives engage in assassination plots or undertake actions at odds with international conventions? Should states be treated as unstable nodes of power traversed by a perverse anti-cosmopolitan network that subverts and disrupts the world of territorial states?
Terrorism issues in the lived experience of evil. Evil surprises; it liquidates sedimented habits of moral trust and ordained violence; it foments categorical uncertainty; it originates in a fervent desire to restore closure to a dirempted world; and it generates imperious demands to identify and take revenge on the guilty parties. When you experience evil the bottom falls out of your stomach because it has fallen out of your world. If you have experienced other such traumas, they help to color this one. The accumulation of such events becomes layered into the soft tissues of life, finding expression in both modes of explicit recollection and embodied dispositions to judgment subsisting below the threshold of recollection. Such events teach us about the layered character of being, not as we suffer through them but as we review that suffering.
In thinking about evil it is wise to attend to its phenomenology. For the party, leader, or regime that takes charge of the trauma of evil acquires considerable freedom to mobilize the energies of response in several possible directions. The response might engender new evils, as the American war against Iraq has surely done. And, most dramatically, as the indefinite detention of non-prisoners by the Bush administration at Camp Delta after 9/11 in Guantánamo Bay has done. These detainees were denied legal counsel because they were not accused of any crimes; and yet they were not designated prisoners of war by the Bush regime because they were held on territory by the United States that was alleged not to be under its sovereignty. These noncategorized detainees were placed in a new version of the Gulag; for a long time they were subjected to repeated interrogations, exposed to intense light for twenty-four hours a day, and kept away from inspection or protection by any international agency. They were reduced to what Giorgio Agamben calls "bare life." They were placed in a zone beyond recognized conventions of right and entitlement, either for those accused of crime or for war prisoners. This was done not to identify new ways to protect their dignity while their actions were examined, but to place them outside the purview of state limits, international scrutiny, or publicity.
If a compelling task is to forestall evil it becomes pertinent to work upon ourselves so that we respond firmly to it without perpetuating the phenomenon we seek to expel. But what is evil? Is it a dispensable category in the modern world? An essential one?
The Augustinian Story
A story of evil defines the character, sources, and appropriate mode of response to such experiences of devastation, suffering, and moral shock. A familiar story becomes bonded to the new experience, providing the cultural script through which to respond. There are, however, several such stories. They compete within us as well as between us. The Augustinian story is the most familiar to those growing up within the orbit of Christendom. I focus on that part of the story dealing with responsibility for evil. For that is the script most people in states growing out of Christendom turn to when the bottom falls out of their world. Through this story Augustine seeks not only to identify responsible agents of evil but to ensure that the omnipotent, omniscient, salvational God he confesses is not tainted with any responsibility for it. If the infection were to spread to God the Augustinian story would incline toward the tragic vision he resists.
The first act by Adam was an act of evil freely chosen. The brand-new man, upon receiving an order from his God, was tempted by the new woman to disobey; she in turn had been tempted by the serpent to do so when he posed a simple question to her. Adam nonetheless chose freely to eat of the tree of good and evil when he consented, drawing evil into the world through a free, rebellious act. "The injunction ... was so easy to observe, so brief to remember; above all, it was given at a time when desire was not yet in opposition to the will ... Therefore the unrighteousness of violating the prohibition was so much greater, in proportion to the ease with which it could have been observed and fulfilled."
The first act of free will, if you treat merely giving names to animals as below the complexity of willing freely, was an act of disobedience. That act ushers evil into being; it elicits just and severe punishment by the Creator; and it ensures that human beings shall be plagued henceforth by a will divided against itself. The accusation by Jerry Falwell that Americans brought the destruction of 9/11 upon themselves through their secularism and support for homosexuality echoes this story. For Adam and Eve deserved the consequences-the suffering as punishment-visited upon them after that fateful act. Humans, after Adam's act, are divided against themselves; they can henceforth move closer to freedom, virtue, and salvation only by receiving the unfathomable gift of God's grace. If the first rebellion was an act of pure will it was also so inexplicable as to be gratuitous. Indeed evil, on this reading, is gratuitous disobedience to the commands of God (even as Augustine tells a corollary story in which acts of apparent evil contribute to a better world in the future). Evil is freely undertaken; it deserves punishment in proportion to its severity. And human beings, after the fall, are incapable of eliminating it by their own actions alone.
But which acts of rebellion are most evil? When people worship a false god or fill the true God with false content they participate in radical evil. When this occurs they themselves are appropriately defined as evil, even though there are limits to the action that other human beings-as opposed to God-can take against them. Consider what Augustine says about the Manicheans, a sect within Christianity to which he once belonged and which he now defines as heresy. The problem with the Manicheans, he writes, is that they translate the two wills contending for hegemony within the human soul into two opposing forces in the world representing two deities, one good and the other evil. The dangerous implication of this translation is that the good God lacks omnipotence, perhaps even the capacity to deliver on the hope of salvation. Augustine came perilously close to this view himself. For he recognized Lucifer as a real being. But he defined him to be a divine creation who fell away from God by his own free will. This account enables Augustine to avoid positing Lucifer as a primordial force in cosmic competition with the benevolent God. So Augustine underlines the precarious difference between the two-world view, and the fall from one world for which Lucifer and Adam are responsible, by defining the first faith to be a manifestation of evil. He could not discern an affirmative power in himself to treat Manicheanism as a contending faith in Christianity with which to enter into a relation of agonistic respect: "Let them perish from before your faith, O God, even as vain talkers and seducers of men's minds perish who detect in the act of deliberation two wills at work; and then assert that in us there are two natures of two minds, one good, the other evil. They themselves are truly evil, when they think such evil things."
"They themselves are truly evil." Augustine is prepared to define carriers of the opposing sect evil even if they take no action against him to stop him from practicing or publicizing his faith. Does the alternative creed unsettle something fundamental to him, perhaps his confidence in a God powerful enough to provide salvation? For the Manichean God, locked in a cosmic struggle, is limited.
There are sore spots in Augustine's own story. They include, first, the question of how this early act by a divinely created human being could be untainted by the will of the God who created it and, second, the question of how an omnipotent, omniscient God could both be offended by such actions and know in advance that they must occur. We focus here, however, on a related issue. Against the probable views of Jesus, Augustine helped to consolidate a tradition in which the Universal Church both defines official doctrine and identifies modes of faith to exclude or punish as heresies. While he counseled Christians to obey Caesar in regimes that did not profess Christianity, he felt entitled to pursue a future in which all of civilization professed the truth of Christianity in the same way as he did. This sense of divine entitlement had practical effects, even though Augustine hemmed in those implications to some degree. Here is what he says in a letter to a pagan who had protested gratuitous violence by vagrant practitioners of Christianity against his people and their sacred places: "You plainly see the Jewish people torn from their abode and dispersed and scattered throughout the whole world..., everything has happened just as it was foretold ... You plainly see some of the temples of [pagan] idols fallen into ruin and not restored, some cast down, some closed, some converted to other uses...; and you see how the powers of this world, who at one time for the sake of their idols persecuted the Christian people, are vanquished and subdued by Christians who did not take up arms but laid down their lives."
"Torn from their abode," "cast down," "idols fallen into ruin." Augustine does not actively condone violence against these inferior faiths, and he elsewhere sets limits to the actions that Christians can take against heretics and pagans. But in adopting the passive voice with respect to these acts of violence, and in failing to counsel corrective action against them, he does sound as though the pagans and the Jews have brought these tribulations upon themselves. He thus takes a first step toward capitulating to what I will call the problem of evil within the very ubiquity and diversity of faith itself.
For me, Augustine's doctrine of divinity, will, grace, universal authority, and evil is too close for comfort to the doctrine of Sayyid Qutb, the radical cleric whose version of Islam is said to inspire Osama bin Laden. Augustine and Qutb disagree on the role and standing of Jesus; they diverge in some of the obligations they sanction to God or Allah. But Qutb, as Roxanne Euben presents his doctrine in Enemy in the Mirror, parallels things that Augustine says in the City of God: Against the Pagans. Each thinks that only his God is salvational and that salvation is one of the keys to religion as such; each insists that the one true God must eventually be worshiped by all; each claims that the secular world is tainted with corruption; each claims that there are clear, undeniable truths of revelation applicable to all humans; each calls those who deviate from the true faith heathen and pagans; and each uses such claims and admonitions to bolster the authority of the church embraced. The heathen for Augustine were Greeks and Romans who denied the Christian God; in the Middle Ages they become Islamists and, later yet, the new pagans in America. For Qutb they are, first, Jews, Christians, secularists, and rationalists who forsake the true God and, second, those within Islam who wander from pure Islamic faith. Here are a couple of formulations from Qutb:
The purpose of the righteous guidance is the good and prosperity of humanity: the good that springs from the return of mankind to its Creator; the prosperity that emanates from the congruence between the movement of humanity and ... the noble stature that God intends, freed from the dominance of desires.
When the highest authority is God alone-and is expressed in the dominance of divine law-this sovereignty is the only kind in which humans are truly liberated from slavery to men. Only this is "human civilization," because human civilization requires that the basis of rule be the true and perfect freedom of man.
Excerpted from PLURALISM by WILLIAM E. CONNOLLY Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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