Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 18, 2014

More listening: What is meant by evil?

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 18, 2014

Last Thursday, September 11, several of us exchanged a wide range of opinions on evil as an aspect of the challenge presented by terrorists.

The discussion spilled into Friday and the weekend as well.  In my judgment, it is a discussion that shows some potential to actually — eventually — elucidate an innately murky topic.

What is meant when we use the word “evil”?  When our political leaders use the word does their meaning generally accord with a widely shared meaning?  Does evil — in any form similar to common concepts — actually exist?  Is any concept of evil practically helpful to engaging terrorists and related threats?

These questions are prompted by the President’s reference to evil in his September 10 remarks announcing expanded operations against the so-called Islamic State.  He said in part, “We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm.  That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today.”

I heard President Obama saying that evil — specifically the evil of terrorism — is perpetually emergent.  If he is correct, this has important implications for homeland security.  Even if he is wrong this belief — as long as he is President — has important implications for homeland security.

In the weeks ahead I intend to give these questions some extended consideration.  I hope you will contribute to the process.

To start I have tried to discern the full meaning that may be embedded in the President’s choice of words. If you search for “evil” on WhiteHouse.gov over 12,000 possibilities are spawned.  I have not examined each.  But below are several comments on evil by President Obama.


We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth:  We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.  There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago:  “Violence never brings permanent peace.  It solves no social problem:  it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”  As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence.  I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.  I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.  For make no mistake:  Evil does exist in the world.  A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.  Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.  To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason. (Nobel Prize Lecture, December 10, 2009)

But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized -– at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do -– it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.  Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, “When I looked for light, then came darkness.”  Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath. For the truth is none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack.  None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.  Yes, we have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy.  We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence.  We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future.  But what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other.  (Tucson Memorial Service, January 12, 2011)

Even as we come to learn how this happened and who’s responsible, we may never understand what leads anyone to terrorize their fellow human beings.  Such evil is senseless – beyond reason.  But while we will never know fully what causes someone to take the life of another, we do know what makes that life worth living. (Weekly Media Message focused on the Aurora shootings, July 21, 2012)

For here we see the depravity to which man can sink; the barbarism that unfolds when we begin to see our fellow human beings as somehow less than us, less worthy of dignity and of life.  We see how evil can, for a moment in time, triumph when good people do nothing, and how silence abetted a crime unique in human history. Here we see their faces and we hear their voices.  We look upon the objects of their lives — the art that they created, the prayer books that they carried.  We see that even as they had hate etched into their arms, they were not numbers.  They were men and women and children — so many children — sent to their deaths because of who they were, how they prayed, or who they loved. And yet, here, alongside man’s capacity for evil, we also are reminded of man’s capacity for good — the rescuers, the Righteous Among the Nations who refused to be bystanders.  And in their noble acts of courage, we see how this place, this accounting of horror, is, in the end, a source of hope. (House of the Children, March 22, 2013)

As the sun rose that Easter Sunday, he put on that purple stole and led dozens of prisoners to the ruins of an old church in the camp.  And he read from a prayer missal that they had kept hidden.  He held up a small crucifix that he had made from sticks.  And as the guards watched, Father Kapaun and all those prisoners — men of different faith, perhaps some men of no faith — sang the Lord’s Prayer and “America the Beautiful.”  They sang so loud that other prisoners across the camp not only heard them, they joined in, too — filling that valley with song and with prayer. That faith — that they might be delivered from evil, that they could make it home — was perhaps the greatest gift to those men; that even amidst such hardship and despair, there could be hope; amid their misery in the temporal they could see those truths that are eternal; that even in such hell, there could be a touch of the divine.  Looking back, one of them said that that is what “kept a lot of us alive.” (Medal of Honor presentation, April 11, 2013)

You’ve shown us, Boston, that in the face of evil, Americans will lift up what’s good. In the face of cruelty, we will choose compassion. In the face of those who would visit death upon innocents, we will choose to save and to comfort and to heal. We’ll choose friendship. We’ll choose love. (Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston, April 18, 2013)

So America is at a crossroads.  We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.  We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”  Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.  But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.  And to define that strategy, we have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom.  That begins with understanding the current threat that we face. (National Defense University, May 23, 2013)

All these shootings, all these victims, she said, “this is not America.” “It is a challenge to all of us,” she said, and “we have to work together to get rid of this.” And that’s the wisdom we should be taking away from this tragedy and so many others — not accepting these shootings as inevitable, but asking what can we do to prevent them from happening again and again and again. I’ve said before, we cannot stop every act of senseless violence. We cannot know every evil that lurks in troubled minds. But if we can prevent even one tragedy like this, save even one life, spare other families what these families are going through, surely we’ve got an obligation to try. (Marine Barracks, Washington DC, September 22, 2013)

If the memories of the Shoah survivors teach us anything, it is that silence is evil’s greatest co-conspirator.  And it’s up to us — each of us, every one of us — to forcefully condemn any denial of the Holocaust.  It’s up to us to combat not only anti-Semitism, but racism and bigotry and intolerance in all their forms, here and around the world.  It’s up to us to speak out against rhetoric that threatens the existence of a Jewish homeland and to sustain America’s unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.  And it is up to us to search our own hearts — to search ourselves — for those stories that have no place in this world.  Because it’s easy sometimes to project out and worry about others and their hatreds and their bigotries and their blind spots.  It’s not always as easy for us to examine ourselves.  (USC Shoah Foundation Dinner, May 7, 2014


What do you hear in these comments?  What does he mean?  Does his use of the term — perception of the concept — roughly accord with yours?  If not, how not? I’ll join you in the comment section for discussion and analysis.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

September 18, 2014 @ 1:55 am

Interesting post so many thanks Phil!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 18, 2014 @ 3:12 am

I read several more presidential references to evil. Other White House officials also apply the term.

I came away with a sense that references to evil have increased with the President’s time in office.

There is almost always a sense, implicit or explicit, that evil is persistent yet unpredictable, beyond reason, and therefore beyond understanding. It is a term mostly reserved for awful mystery.

Several denizens of the White House have discussed how service there is intellectually consuming. Henry Kissinger famously commented, “High office teaches decision making, not substance. It consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it. Most high officials leave office with the perceptions and insights with which they entered; they learn how to make decisions but not what decisions to make.”

I don’t perceive that many currently in high office have had much sustained experience or prior meaningful insight regarding the sort of “evil” they are now required to make decisions about. When evil is pronounced we might hear an admission of deep humility, despite the often portentous tone that is used. Invoking an evil adversary is, perhaps, for most political leaders to grudgingly acknowledge personal finitude.

In most of the references there is the suggestion of evil as an active adversary, something with its own will-to-power. I perceive this is probably the most common understanding of evil and it is something that most of our leaders seem to share with most of us. I’m not saying this is systematic or carefully considered, but it does seem to be deeply felt. Almost a primordial psychological impulse.

Yet… there is also an occasional intuition that evil is something more absent than active. Silence is, as in the President’s comments above, widely perceived as the breeding ground of evil. The President is not alone in implying (hoping?) that the right words, at the right time, at the right volume might serve to fill the time and space where evil would otherwise arise.

Perhaps: Logos (Word) is what organizes chaos, serving to midwife emergence and creativity. Absent logos, chaos is mere entropy.

But while there are subtle verbal gestures suggesting this less Manichean notion of evil, based on the most common rhetoric used, most of our political leaders — and most of us — seem to perceive evil as a specific and separate state-of-being.

Given this understanding, evil is an enemy to be destroyed.

To the extent we depend on language as the basic stuff of syllogistic reasoning, this language does not leave us many other options.

For what it’s worth, there is another set of syllogisms that I will try to outline next week. But evil-as-active-enemy has a subjective reality that the alternatives almost certainly do not.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 18, 2014 @ 9:27 am

So do those fighting US think we are evil?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 18, 2014 @ 9:37 am

Bill: It’s worth some long quotes by our adversaries, because they too can “do nuance.” But yes, American culture and/or behavior is often seen as innately evil or inclined to evil acts or the source of evil influences. Which I am sure you already know. So I have taken the bait for your further comment.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 18, 2014 @ 10:38 am

Well I would concede using the term THE GREAT SATAN would seem to definitively stamp one worldview!

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 18, 2014 @ 1:25 pm

O the good versus evil dialectic is a total failure whether housed in a religious context or otherwise.

I believe fundamentally wars are about power and who has it. POWER IS TAKEN NEVER GIVEN!

Is in fact our democracy [republic?] so superior a culture and form of governance that we should be granted or given power by others? That is NOT going to happen!




IMO a new nation-state is being formed in Syria/Iraq [Caliphate?]!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 18, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

Bill: Just focused on your “good versus evil dialectic” (I’ll leave the remainder of your comment to others):

Is there any value in a dialectical encounter between two modalities of good or two different orders of evil? Can it be helpful to consider distinctions along a continuum where one action or state-of-being is — at least relative to another — more good or less evil?

Or are you suggesting this whole enterprise of comparative valuing is self-delusional bunk? There is no essential difference between ISIS beheadings and such and our “collateral damage”?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 18, 2014 @ 4:31 pm


When I asked my question about your dialectic it was an authentic question. I have been thinking about it since (proved distracting during a meeting on quite another topic). For what it’s worth, here’s my own answer to my question.

Very similar deadly consequences can have very dissimilar social outcomes. Intention matters. Regret matters. Intention and regret especially matter if they are reflected in meaningful action taken in response to the deadly consequence.

The dignity accorded the dead and their survivors matter. The grace or rage of survivors may matter most of all. These predispositions and responses shape how meaning-is-made of the deadly consequence. That meaning matters.

So… I ought not deny or obscure my own — or my nation’s — self-interest, will-to-power, and potential to-do-evil. But neither should I use my own culpability as an excuse for failing to engage the self-interest, will-to-power, and evil potential of others.

I am reminded of a young Abraham Lincoln’s comment: “The true rule, in determining to embrace, or reject any thing, is not whether it have any evil in it; but whether it have more of evil, than of good. There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good.”

Judging this quality is tough — and lends itself to self-deluding justifications — but this does not obviate the value of making such judgments.

And when we perceive, as honestly and accurately as we can, that our action is needed to constrain the evil of another we should be aware of the potential for our own evil tendencies to mate and breed with that of the other. But this can inform rather than impede our decision and action.

I am still very interested in your answer.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 18, 2014 @ 10:40 pm

WOW! An amazing Lincoln quote and probably displays for all time an amazing mind and deep deep thought.

I have long been concerned about the “situation ethics” discourse that marked the collapse of the “eternalities” [is there such a word?] that marked the collapse of religion in the West after WWI and WWII when “Nihilism” and the writings of Saetre and others seemed persuasicn to more than a few.

To the extent I grew up in that milieu, and not being Catholic, I still became attracted to the concepts of Natural Law. Probably JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG a favorite movie. That movie asks the question “what is the value of a single human being?”.

Clearly each of us has our own answer but for me the savagery of the beheadings demonstrates No regard for human life and therefore not a religious underpinning for the act but rampant nihilism.

So instead of labeling it “evil” President Obama and others could have articulated an answer to Spencer Tracey’s questions and summary in finding the German [Nazi} Jurist guilty.

Some would argue that Nuremberg merely reflects the power of the war winners. IMO it was the most moral and ethical act of the 20th Century and even now a President should lead US to join the ICC.

Let’s face it! ISIS is led by War Criminals and we should put as many into the dock as possible. Let US stand for something and articulate not rely on good versus evil.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 19, 2014 @ 4:23 am


The quote comes from Lincoln’s one term in Congress… but is certainly of the same worldview as the Second Inaugural.

A somewhat similar quote by a much different man:

Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.… If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 19, 2014 @ 7:03 am

Phil! Great quote from AS! Viktor Steckel’s writing also demonstrate how to fight good versus evil on an individual basis.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

September 22, 2014 @ 11:17 am

I have been unable to respond as I would have liked to and I hope to shortly. But I’ll leave you with this; We are now using one member of the Axis of evil, Iran, to engage the aftermath of our intervention with another axis of evil, Iraq. So America appears to be using evil to fight evil, to prevent evil….

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Evil as a non-integrated gap

October 3, 2014 @ 8:26 am

[…] of “evil” in homeland security rhetoric. (Prior posts: as referenced on September 10, as otherwise used by President Obama, as self-assertion, and at the United […]

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