The New York Times Book Review
Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat Itby Alan Wolfe
A timely, eye-opening examination of political evil, a concept widely misunderstood and desperately in need of clarification in our ever more chaotic world.
In an age of genocide, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and torture, evil threatens us in ways radically different from tsunamis and financial panics. Nature unleashes its wrath and people rush to help the… See more details below
A timely, eye-opening examination of political evil, a concept widely misunderstood and desperately in need of clarification in our ever more chaotic world.
In an age of genocide, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and torture, evil threatens us in ways radically different from tsunamis and financial panics. Nature unleashes its wrath and people rush to help the victims. Evil shows its face and we are paralyzed over how to respond.
It was not always this way. During the twentieth century, thinkers as diverse as Hannah Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Koestler, and George Orwell made evil central to everything they wrote. Acclaimed political scientist Alan Wolfe argues that in an age of partisan blame-assigning, therapeutic excuse-making, and theological question-dodging, we need to get serious about the problem of evil once again. While there will always be something incomprehensible about evil, we are very much capable of understanding and combating the use of evil means to obtain political ends.
Diplomats and politicians with their own agendas ignore this side of evil to grim and often tragic effect. These movers and shakers apply the concept of general evil, seemingly inconquerable, inviting only violence and despair to situations that are local in nature. Looking at examples of political evil around the globe—in the Middle East, Darfur, the Balkans, and at home in the West—Wolfe shows us how seemingly small distinctions can make an immense difference in international response. And he makes clear that much-needed change can be initiated with a shift in how we talk and think about political evil.
International shame in the years following the Rwandan genocide—after the world failed to recognize it as such—led to a large-scale campaign against genocide in Darfur. Except, Wolfe argues, in Darfur it wasn’t genocide: it was civil war. We see—surprisingly, and powerfully—that labeling the conflict incorrectly had disastrous effects, even extending the violence as soldiers waited for seemingly inevitable Western intervention. When, on the other hand, Western leaders compared Serbian president and infamous ethnic cleanser Slobodan Milosevic to Hitler, they failed to recognize that exterminating people and seeking to take over their land are both evil but they are evil in different ways; misguided Western intervention in the Balkans eventually brought ethnic cleansing to an end, but only by allowing it to run its course.
At once impassioned and pragmatic, Political Evil sheds essential light on the creation of policy and on a concrete path to a more practicable and just future.
The New York Times Book Review
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“In Political Evil, Alan Wolfe issues a compelling summons to moral and intellectual seriousness and conducts a multi-pronged and . . . soberly argued inquiry into the contemporary forms of political evil and the proper means for combating them.” —Peter Berkowitz, The Wall Street Journal
“[Wolfe’s] sentiments . . . seem both admirable and true.” —Michael Ignatieff, Slate
“Ambitious and important.” —Charles R. Morris, Commonweal
“This book has many virtues. Wolfe has done us a service in reminding us that human beings should be sensitive to their own fallibility, and to the dangers of a hubristic mustering of overwhelming force . . . Political Evil represents the reflections of an intelligent, humane and learned scholar who has many important things to say to policy makers in a world that is dangerous and sadly in need of tempering voices.” —Robert Swan, Washington Independent Review of Books
“A revelatory work: full of terrific analysis, and, a word I hesitate to use, wisdom. So many illuminations about so many murky matters. Really wonderful.” —C.K. Williams, winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
“In this impassioned and thought-provoking journey through the varied landscape of political evil, Alan Wolfe draws subtle and often heartbreaking distinctions examining what can—and cannot—be done to combat the most vile organized horrors that human beings have always inflicted upon one another. This is a necessary but disturbing book, because it is all about the heart of darkness that is so much more comfortable to ignore—and our own limitations even when we try to do the right thing.” —Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason
“In the face of mass violence, terrorism, and genocide around the globe, democratic citizens risk inaction and also excessive reaction. Are there alternatives to letting evil continue and producing more violence and inevitable victimization of innocents? Alan Wolfe's clear-eyed analysis offers vital tools to advance effective responses. He calls for joining unblinking condemnation of large-scale horrors with precise attention to their particular roots. His warnings against sweeping generalizations and faulty analogies to the past are grounded in detailed studies of mass violence in Darfur, the US ‘war against terror,’ and other current events. For serious alternatives to overreaction and inaction in the face of political evil, read Alan Wolfe.” —Martha Minow, author of Between Vengeance and Forgiveness
“Despite the persistence of evil, Wolfe is hopeful that we can stop evil acts, and despite his clear appeal to reason, his arguments are quite passionate.” —Booklist
“A balanced inquiry into the violent world confronting America today.” —Publishers Weekly
Noted political scientist Wolfe (The Future of Liberalism, 2009, etc.) brings the theological problem of evil to bear on politics and political wrongdoers from Hitler to Dick Cheney.
"Political evil is all around us," writes the author, and the headlines would certainly seem to bear him out. That evil comes in four flavors: terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide and what Wolfe calls counterevil, which he defines as "the determination to inflict uncalled-for suffering on those presumed or known to have inflicted the same upon you." This is likely to be the most controversial plank in his platform, but nonetheless Wolfe considers George W. Bush's response to Saddam Hussein to be a hallmark example. Political evil has a cause, he writes, and that cause would seem almost always to be the accumulation and retention of power. This is distinct from the "apolitical evil" that dominates the headlines: the Columbines and murderous mothers and Beltway snipers that haunt our dreams. Such evil is often characterized by a sort of glee in a madman's gleaming eye. In the instance of political evil, it is possible to see that glint—as Wolfe writes, "However much they differ from each other, Eric Harris, Adolf Hitler, and Osama bin Laden all took unseemly pleasure in the harm they caused others"—but the process is often anonymous and bureaucratic. Cheney, apologist for and practitioner of evil, comes in for a particular drubbing on that score; Wolfe asserts that his devotion to waterboarding and invasion was meant to scare "civil libertarians and Democrats" as much as the nation's external enemies. Replacing Cheney's theory of government as nemesis, Wolfe writes, is necessary "if the United States is to come to terms with its experience of counterevil."
Abstract and sometimes arid, but always with an eye to what's happening on the ground.
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Read an Excerpt
The Fundamental Question of the Twenty-first Century
Putting Politics First
When the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in 1945 that “the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe,” she could easily have broadened her geographic scope. There is no more important problem facing the entire world today than the existence of evil, and there is no subject more characterized by muddled thinking and self- defeating responses. Evil threatens us in ways that make hurricanes, global warming, fl u pandemics, and financial panics, as awful as they are, seem small by comparison. Present all around us, evil demands our best efforts to understand it if it is to be contained. In this book I offer a way of thinking designed to do that.
The problem of evil is one of our oldest intellectual conundrums. Volumes have been written attempting to define evil, to catalog its horrors, to account for its persistence, to explain its appeal, to confront its consequences. The subject has attracted philosophers, poets, artists, theologians, psychologists, novelists, composers, and physicians. Every major language has a term for evil, and every major religion—pantheistic, dualistic, or monotheistic—shows a preoccupation with it. Human beings may want to be good, but they have long recognized that they have to familiarize themselves with the bad. Because it touches so closely the mystery of human existence, evil is a subject best approached with considerable trepidation. Fortunately, this has not stopped some of the finest thinkers the world has ever known from addressing it.
The moment we begin to ask questions about the nature of evil, however, we begin to understand how difficult it will be to answer them. In the West alone, two of the greatest theologians in the Christian tradition—Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas—spent countless pages exploring whether evil exists and what forms it takes, work that in many ways was shaped by earlier, pre-Christian philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Every student asked to read Macbeth or Othello is introduced to the complexity of evil, as are those who ponder Paradise Lost or Goethe’s Faust. A fascination with the problem of evil, argues the philosopher Susan Neiman, dominated the writings of such Enlightenment thinkers as Rousseau, Kant, and Voltaire and found particularly poignant expression in the post-Enlightenment philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Similar concerns shaped America’s writers and leaders, appearing in the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, the debates over the Constitution, the work of Herman Melville, and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln. Dostoyevsky and Conrad were only two of the great European novelists who wrote about evil in strikingly contemporary ways. As late as the 1950s, explorations of evil lay at the heart of such widely regarded scholars as Arendt, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and those Jewish philosophers such as Emil Fackenheim moved by the Holocaust to refl ect on just what future God had in mind for his chosen people. We know evil is there, yet we are not sure what makes people evil or whether their evil can ever be overcome.
One way to start the discussion is to narrow the focus. Evil is all too often analyzed at too high a level of abstraction. If theologians tell us that evil is what human beings do in the absence of God, they face the difficult tasks of defining God’s essence, interpreting his words, and deciding which of many available deities is the authoritative one. Philosophers who conceptualize evil as a disturbance in the natural order of the universe must wrestle with the nature of the universe, not to mention the meaning of order. Contemporary neuroscientists who view evil as a product of faulty hard- wiring in our brains do not always know what is taking place in our minds. There are times and places when discussions of the theology or the metaphysics of evil are appropriate. But there are also times when they can get in the way of knowing what to do when we are confronted with terrorists who fly planes into buildings or enforcers of ethnic solidarity who rape and kill those whose land they covet.
The most important thing we need to do to come to terms with the horrors confronting us is to stop talking about evil in general and focus instead on political evil in particular. Political evil refers to the willful, malevolent, and gratuitous death, destruction, and suffering inflicted upon innocent people by the leaders of movements and states in their strategic efforts to achieve realizable objectives. Later on I will revisit this definition with more care; distinguish between political, everyday, and radical evil; examine the specific forms that political evil can take; and discuss the best ways to respond to each of them. But for now I want to insist that while political evil causes massive amounts of harm and directly assaults our fundamental moral sense, we need not feel hopeless in the face of it. We are unlikely ever to wipe evil per se off the face of the earth. But if we think more clearly and act more strategically, we can significantly reduce the amount of political evil threatening us.
Bringing the problem of evil down from the heavens into the world of politics and policy offers advantages that can help make the atrocities we face in the world today more intelligible. One is that it changes the kinds of questions we ask. Politics is not philosophy, and neither is it theology or neuroscience. Those who plan and carry out political evil no doubt have malevolence in their hearts or malfunctions in their brains. But it is not their insides that ought to concern us; it is their acts. Whether they are twisted by hatred and envy, exemplars of a depraved human nature, stunted in their development because they were abused as children, psychotic or sociopathic, unwilling to allow a savior into their lives, suffering from delusions of grandeur, obsessive-compulsive in their personality disorders, the product of a poor genetic heritage, or seriously dependent on their meds to get through the day is a matter of scant interest to us. Let them talk to their therapists, make pacts with Mephistopheles, send out videotapes explaining their acts, or seek redemption for the horrors they unleash; we have little at stake in their struggles with their demons. We can recognize their depravity, but it is their cunning that ought to concern us. We need not reform them, stigmatize them, or show them the path to salvation. We need to stop them, and in order to do that we have to focus on the political causes that attract them and their followers. Acts are easier to change than people.
A focus on political evil, in addition, reminds us of how evil and politics make for an especially toxic mix. Organized into a movement or state and motivated by a cause that gives them passion and purpose, practitioners of political evil are capable of carrying out violence on levels that far surpass those realizable by any lone individual. Evil individuals without a state or movement behind them can shed only so much blood. Those who gain command over the state’s sources of revenue and monopoly of violence are capable of making that blood flow in amounts too copious to measure. One reason political evil is so omnipresent is that states are so common. Even dictators ruling over poor or not very strategically important states—Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan—can cause unimaginable suffering. Because of the growth of modern states, political evil has in a sense been democratized—and in the most frightening of ways. As the potency of means of destruction has increased, so has the number of leaders with access to them.
Paradoxically, however, the same control over a movement or a state that maximizes the power at the disposal of these leaders also tempers their extremism. For better or worse, those who commit acts of political evil have been tested; they have risen through the ranks of an organization to assume a position of control within it. Almost never elected to office, and inclined to suspend elections even when they have been, they can be as ruthless toward their followers as they are toward their enemies. Yet while they are radical in their choice of means, politically evil leaders are often conservative in how they apply them. Having spent years building a movement or assuming a position of power, they are reluctant to become too reckless for fear of destroying what they have patiently constructed. Evil leaders kill others, and they even, in the form of suicide terrorism, encourage some of their followers to kill themselves. But as political leaders, they are anything but suicidal. They serve a cause, and the furtherance of that cause, as well as the organization embodying it, trump everything else. Organizational weapons are therefore inevitably used cautiously. Al-Qaeda spent five years planning its bombings against U.S. embassies in Africa, two developing its attack on the USS Cole, and as many as seven preparing for September 11. While it is quite possible that the successful effort by the Obama administration to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011 has crippled al-Qaeda’s capacity, any further attacks the group or its offshoots may be planning, based on its earlier record, will not be precipitately chosen. One does not become engaged in politics unless one’s cause has a future. Once a group’s vision becomes future oriented, its conduct in the present becomes constrained. If the politics in political evil makes us shudder, it also gives us hope.
When confronted with political evil, we are better off responding to the “political” rather than to the “evil.” Politics does not ask that we eradicate evil from the dark hearts of men and women. It does demand that when faced with tactics that threaten our way of life in the pursuit of political goals, we at least make an effort to understand why those goals were chosen in the first place. Fighting evil with evil contaminates, but fighting politics with politics does not. We confuse the two at great risk to ourselves. There will be situations when we will be tempted to conclude that the methods used against us are so evil that there is nothing to discuss with those who employ them. But precisely because those methods are so evil, we might also decide that we ought to do everything in our power to bring them to an end, even if doing so means engaging politically with people we rightly despise. Political evil gives us choices. We are foolish, and not nearly as moral as we may congratulate ourselves for being, if we refuse to make them.
Because my focus is on political evil and not evil in general, this book, despite its subject matter, will not be a pessimistic one. It is true that we live in an era when the means of political evil are available to so many. But it does not follow that we must accustom ourselves to the status of potential victims who might at any moment be subject to the worst horrors in history. The fact that some employ terror does not mean that everyone should be terrorized. For every practitioner of genocide, there exist activists, lawyers, judges, and humanitarians with real-world experience in bringing genocide to an end. Even the most hate-spewing heads of state with access to weapons of mass destruction do not necessarily want to risk destroying their own people by actually using them. We are only aware of the ubiquity of political evil because we have learned that there are other and better ways for states to manage their affairs than by oppressing their own people or seeking to swallow up their neighbors. We should never doubt the ugliness of political evil. But nor should we doubt our intelligence, both the kind that enables us to think clearly about what we face as well as the kind that helps governments adopt the best national security strategies for responding to the attacks against them.
Political evil, in short, while a problem of utmost seriousness, is not a bottomless quandary. When a new example of political evil breaks out in the world, the last thing we should do is throw up our hands in theological, philosophical, or literary despair. Helplessness only furthers hate. The problem of political evil should concentrate our minds rather than cloud our judgment. Politics always takes place in this world, and it is in this world that we are obligated to remain if we are to combat political evil with any success. It is certainly important to turn to the great classic texts of the Western tradition to understand human malevolence at its worst. But we also need to think politically about the choices confronting us if we are to bring into being a world with just a little less evil than the one we see around us. Doing so will not produce a perfect world, but it would be a notable achievement nonetheless.
Meet the Author
Alan Wolfe teaches political science at Boston College, where he is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. A contributing editor of The New Republic whose work appears frequently in leading magazines and newspapers, he is the author or editor of more than twenty books, including The Future of Liberalism. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
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