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.