The Pentagon’s New Map by Thomas P.M. Barnett (click to open larger version)
This is the fifth — and probably penultimate — post on the use 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 Nations.)
Six quotations on evil, classical to contemporary:
For no man is voluntarily evil; but the evil become so by reason of an ill disposition of the body and bad education, things which are hateful to every man and happen to him against his will. (Plato quoting Socrates, Timaeus)
Evil in itself has neither being, goodness, productiveness, nor power of creating things which have being and goodness… thus evil has no being, nor any inherence in things that have being. Evil is nowhere qua evil; and it arises not through any power but through weakness… And, in a word, evil (as we have often said) is weakness, impotence, and deficiency of knowledge (or, at least, of exercised knowledge), or of faith, desire, or activity as touching the Good. (Dionysius the Areopagite, On the Divine Names and The Mystical Theology)
I became evil for no reason. I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself. My depraved soul leaped down from your firmament to ruin. I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake. (Augustine of Hippo, Confessions)
Whence then come my errors? They come from the sole fact that since the will is much wider in its range and compass than the understanding, I do not restrain it within the same bounds, but extend it also to things which I do not understand: and as the will is of itself indifferent to these, it easily falls into error and sin, and chooses the evil for the good, or the false for the true. (Rene Descartes, Meditations on the First Philosophy)
Evil needs to be pondered just as much as good, for good and evil are ultimately nothing but ideal extensions and abstractions of doing, and both belong to the chiaroscuro of life. In the last resort there is no good that cannot produce evil and no evil that cannot produce good (Carl Gustav Jung, The Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy)
Most of us perceive Evil as an entity, a quality that is inherent in some people and not in others. Bad seeds ultimately produce bad fruits as their destinies unfold. . . Upholding a Good-Evil dichotomy also takes ‘good people’ off the responsibility hook. They are freed from even considering their possible role in creating, sustaining, perpetuating, or conceding to the conditions that contribute to delinquency, crime, vandalism, teasing, bullying, rape, torture, terror, and violence. (Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect)
Evil as an active and intentional otherness is predominant in many Western language and culture systems. When most Americans — perhaps most Westerners — hear a reference to “evil” it implies an aggressive force contending with good. According to one 2013 survey fifty-seven percent of all Americans believe in the Devil as a personification of evil.
As the quotes above suggest, however, this is not the only perspective. Long-time and respected philosophical, religious, and socio-psychological arguments exist for evil emerging from absence of good or distortion of good. In this view, rather than aggressively active, evil is a contingent experience of disintegration and disorder. Other surveys find that up to fifty-nine percent of practicing US Christians perceive that Satan, “is not a living being but is a symbol of evil.”
To the extent evil is and continues in the lexicon of homeland security — and especially counter-terrorism — these differences matter. Clearly it matters in terms of rhetoric. What does a President or Prime Minister or wanna-be Caliph mean when s/he references “evil”? What is heard? Is it possible to better calibrate what is said with what is heard?
It can also matter in terms of long-term strategy. Absence is arguably non-activity. Anemia is treated differently from a virus. A deficiency of B12 and an over-abundance of Lewey Bodies can produce the same symptoms, but respond to very different therapies. Managing a chronic disease is very different than responding to an acute illness. Executing a war is different than carrying-out a long-term counter-terrorism strategy.
Thomas P.M. Barnett’s insights regarding the world’s “non-integrated gap” are a contemporary policy approach coherent with Dionysius the Areopagite. Some of us remember The Pentagon’s New Map. Barnett wrote that. In 2005 he also wrote:
We need to end the disconnectedness that defines danger in our world. We need to shrink the gap and all its pain and suffering – right out of existence. We need to make globalization truly global in a just manner… This process of economic, political, and social integration among many of the world’s states is the defining characteristic of our age, and as such, it defines conflict in this era…
Barnett describes the dysfunction and eventual conflict that emerges from an absence of connectedness. Tighten the full suite of connections, he argues with considerable credibility, and the risk is reduced for the worst sorts of conflict. I am arguing — or really just renewing the classical and orthodox argument — that it is the connections we consciously and creatively cultivate that most effectively and happily connect us to reality. Leonardo Da Vinci’s observation that “Everything is connected to everything else,” can be threat or opportunity depending on how we engage (or not) the connections.
For nearly three years thousands have been horribly killed in Syria. The pictures of gassed and bombed and starved children have proliferated. We have observed the increasing power of the most extreme forces on every side. As this has unfolded we — the supposed demos of the democratic and prosperous “core” (Barnett’s term) — have neglected, perhaps rejected, any meaningful sense of connection.
Then videos are distributed of two, then three (now more) Americans and Europeans being beheaded. The balaclava-clad executioner with a British accent emerges as a personification of evil. Suddenly we perceive a clear-and-present connection. Warships are dispatched. Jets are scrambled. Missiles are launched. A multinational coalition is assembled.
What might have been achieved with more careful attention at an earlier date? What if we were able to recognize the evil potential of absence — even our own thoughtlessness — rather than waiting for absence to unravel into disintegration, discord, and the fully demonic?
And if absence-of-connection — the non-integrated gap — is the breeding ground for evil in Syria, something analogous is as possible in Seattle.
The suppression of evil is and will probably continue as a prominent justification for domestic and international counterterrorism. But for many — potentially most English-speakers — evil is not understood as related to absence. Evil is misunderstood as a sudden irrational eruption of accelerated entropy. This misunderstanding — or very partial understanding — of evil overly constrains our strategic, operational, and tactical engagement with evil. Our orientation-toward-evil colors our observations which inform our decisions that shape our actions.
Recognizing the crucial role of connectedness — and absence of connectedness — allows for much wider and potentially accurate observation.
Next Thursday: Some personal conclusions.