Of all the explanations for Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent alleged war on terrorism, the least illuminating is that it’s all about evil. We didn’t know or didn’t appreciate that there is evil in the world. Now we do know, or ought to. In President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech last January, the first item on his list of truths “we have come to know” after 9/11 is that, “Evil is real, and it must be opposed.”
William J. Bennett—the Martha Stewart of morality—takes up the theme in a quickie book, Why We Fight, a Web site (www.avot.org, “avot” being “Americans for Victory Over Terrorism”), and in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece. “It took George W. Bush … to revive the language of good and evil,” Bennett slobbers.” Until a year ago, he avers, “terms like ‘evil,’ ‘wrong,’ and ‘bad’ ” were not in “the lexicon.” And even now, a fifth column of “pseudo-sophisticated intellectuals” is undermining America’s war effort with nefarious suggestions that it might be more complicated than that. Bennett’s evidence that the concept of evil is endangered is pretty thin. He scrounges up a couple of professors making moral-relativist noises about understanding terrorists as people and the possibility that America’s own actions may have contributed to America’s current dilemma. Neither of them is actually quoted dissing the word “evil.” My own impression, for what it is worth, is that concepts like “bad” and “wrong” did pop up occasionally before 9/11 and that there has never in our entire history been a proposition from which fewer Americans dissent than “Osama Bin Laden is evil.” Calling terrorists “evil” requires no courage and justifies no self-congratulatory puffing. It’s just not a problem.
But it’s also not a solution. There are many people, unfortunately, who would be happy to hijack four airplanes, fly them into crowded buildings, and kill 3,000 Americans. In terms of malign intent, they all are evil. But only one of them managed to actually do it. The concept of evil tells you nothing about why—among the many evils wished upon the United States—this one actually happened. Nor does “evil” help us to figure out how to stop evil from visiting itself upon us again.
If the great essential truth about terrorism is that some people just hate the United States, the obvious next question is, Why? But that is precisely the question that offends the All-About-Evil crowd, because it leads in two unacceptable directions. One is toward psychology, attempting to understand how a human mind could plot the deaths of so many innocents and/or gladly die in carrying it out. “Root causes” is what this kind of thinking is called in the context of domestic social issues like crime and welfare, and conservatives regard it as a major liberal disease, with symptoms that include coddling criminals and forgiving sloth.
If the subjective basis for terrorists hating America is off limits for consideration, that would seem to leave the objective basis: Is it something we did, or didn’t do, to them or theirs? But this violates the ancient conservative taboo (c. 1984, styling by Jeane Kirkpatrick) against “blaming America first.” So, check and mate: Terrorism is evil, evil, evil—gosh, it’s evil—and there’s nothing else to discuss.
This is an astonishingly philistine, know-nothing posture for a group of people (mostly neoconservative would-be muscular-intellectual types) who generally preen as the guardians of intellectual standards. They are so afraid of the fallacy of “tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner” that they fall right into it: In order to avoid the danger that understanding terrorism might lead to excusing terrorism, they put understanding itself beyond the pale. This is not just anti-intellectual, but actually a hindrance to the war on terrorism. Blocking any deeper understanding of the terrorist’s mentality and motives cannot be good for the war effort. Using the word “evil” to resist any more complex understanding of terrorism is doubly philistine because of what the study of evolutionary psychology is learning about how much of human behavior is hard-wired into our brains. Ordinarily conservatives are quite thrilled by the idea of a genetic basis for nearly anything and eager to accuse liberals of refusing to face the truth. The whole subject appeals to their treasured sense of futility. In this case, though, it is conservatives who are hiding from science. Advances in our understanding of the brain do indeed pose a challenge to the moral concept of blame or fault or guilt or, yes, even evil. But the challenge is not necessarily insurmountable. (Robert Wright explores and explains all this in his wonderfully lucid book, The Moral Animal.) In any event, wrapping yourself in the flag and burying your head in the sand—please take a moment to imagine Bill Bennett in this condition—is not an appropriate way to deal with an unwelcome philosophical challenge. It may not be evil, but it isn’t very nice.