On Sunday, President George Bush was quoted in national headlines
as vowing to "rid the world of the evil-doers" behind the September
11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. "We've been
warned there are evil people in this world," Bush said. "The governors
and mayors are alert that evil folks still lurk out there." The
words echoed his statements on the evening of the 11th, when he
announced, "Today our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature."
The promise to fight evil has become a frequent one in America,
repeated and reinforced nearly daily by President Bush and other
members of the administration. It is echoed by friendly nations'
leaders around the world - British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for
instance, who said: "This mass terrorism is the new evil in our
world today. It is perpetrated by fanatics who are utterly indifferent
to the sanctity of human life... [We] will not rest until this evil
is driven from our world."
The use of the word "evil" seems a natural response to the events
of September 11th, in which the apparent suicide attacks of teams
of hijackers destroyed the World Trade Center towers and killed
thousands of Americans. It is a difficult word to define, since
it touches at the very foundation of the way each of us defines
our value systems. Still, it seems both relevant and important to
think about the way this word is being used in world discussions
of the attacks.
Although a source like a dictionary may not seem profound enough
to encompass an idea as complex as "evil," it is nonetheless a useful
starting point for helping us define how we think about words and
their use in the media. If we turn to the American Heritage Dictionary,
we find several definitions of "evil" that seem to be apt descriptions
of Tuesday's events. Choosing the modern senses of the word, we
see that things which are evil are defined as "Morally bad or wrong;
wicked... Causing ruin, injury, or pain... Characterized by anger
or spite; malicious."
Tuesday's attacks unquestionably caused ruin and injury. Most
people consider them morally wrong. And the angry, responsive reaction
of Americans seems to suggest that many people believe the attacks
were spurred, perhaps among other causes, by malice. The next question,
then, would be: what definitions are world leaders using, and of
what precisely, are they speaking, when they talk about "evil"?
Are President Bush and others characterizing the September 11 acts
of terrorism themselves? The individuals who piloted the planes?
The hypothetical network of people who supported their attack? The
acts themselves, heinous as they were, lasted only briefly in time;
the hijackers died in the explosions. What, then, is the still-present
force of "evil" against which Americans, and the citizens and military
of other nations, are being rallied to fight?
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has asserted that Osama bin
Laden, an anti-American militant living in a remote region of Afghanistan,
is a "prime suspect" in the attacks; the American government currently
appears to be preparing to launch attacks against Kabul, Afghanistan's
capital, and other cities if bin Laden is not produced. Is Osama
bin Laden himself the one person whom Bush and Blair characterize
as "evil"? Or is the word also meant to include the suspected members
of his anti-American organization? Does it include all Muslims?
Does it refer to the entire nation of Afghanistan? Is "evil" a characteristic
that can be ascribed to entire nations? To entire religions? The
former rhetoric was most recently used in America to describe the
Soviet Union during the "Cold War" of the 1950s and 1960s. The latter
usage has not recently been in common parlance in the Western world;
used in that sense, it would evoke nothing more recent than the
widespread anti-Islam rhetoric of the Crusades. During those religion-based
wars, according to one of many historical accounts, "moral rules
governing war were abandoned" by Christian fighters, "and unlimited
tactics were permitted. No one was immune from attack by Christian
crusaders; whole cities were slaughtered."
It seems most reasonable to assume that Bush and Blair, as well as other
world leaders, intend to refer specifically to Osama bin Laden - named as
the suspected engineer of the attacks - and his immediate associates
when they talk about their campaign to rid the world of "evil."
Muslims in the United States and across the world are suffering
reprisals from neighbors who apparently identify them with the "evil,
lurk[ing] folks" named by Bush. In Afghanistan itself, hundreds
of thousands of civilians are attempting to flee the country in
anticipation of American strikes. According to U.N. estimates, as
many as 300,000 Afghans have fled the southeastern city of Kandahar,
associated with Afghanistan's Taliban government, out of fear that
the city will be destroyed.
These are human lives, put potentially at risk by the rippling
effects of proclaimed and imminent violence. That violence is directed,
by an angry and grieving nation and the president who leads it,
against the perceived source of the "evil" that destroyed thousands
of lives last Tuesday. But when the target of the intended violence
is not made clear, it may bleed over in dangerous ways to injure
innocents. Rhetoric does not by itself kill, but when a label is
placed upon those declared "the enemy," then anyone on whom it comes
to rest may become vulnerable to violence.
For these reasons, it seems clearly and vitally important that
we think carefully through the implications and meaning of words
as powerful as "evil," when they are used by the leaders of nations,
of armies, and of the hearts of millions of grieving people. It
is difficult to bomb an ill-defined target without hitting bystanders;
it is, perhaps, impossible to direct anger against an ill-defined
target without harming innocents. And the wanton destruction of
innocents is precisely what makes so many Americans so angry, as
they reflect on Tuesday's "evil, despicable" acts.
By most commonly accepted definitions, the concept most nearly
opposed to "evil" is that of "good." This is what President Bush
invoked in his address to the nation on September 11, when he said:
"None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend
freedom and all that is good and just in our world." "Goodness,"
if it is presented in opposition to evil, would, presumably, avoid
all the characteristics of evil. Good acts, according to that way
of thinking, would avoid being wicked. They would avoid causing
ruin, injury, or pain. And they would avoid the last entry in the
definition, as well - namely: "characterized by anger or spite."
If the actions which world leaders launch in the coming days,
in the name of "ridding the world of evil," do not seem to always
remain compatible with the counter-definition, "good," then we might
remember to keep asking ourselves who, and what, our leaders mean
when they speak of the destruction of evil and of the defense of
good. And some of us may find ourselves led back to a disturbing
potential paradox in the last line of President Bush's speech: the
fact that what we think of as "just" is not always compatible with
what we consider to be "good." In that case, what factors should
we weigh to determine the best - or the "right" - course of action?
vows to rid the world of 'evil-doers', CNN, 09/15/2001
address to the nation, MSNBC, 09/11/2001
'Evil' will be punished, New York Post, 09/12/2001
leaders condemn 'New evil' Los Angeles Times, 09/12/2001,
Heritage Dictionary Online
calls bin Laden a prime suspect, Washington Post, 09/14/2001
teeter on edge, Los Angeles Times, 09/17/2001
Modern History Sourcebook: Ronald Reagan: Evil Empire Speech,
Reagan, "The Evil Empire", 06/08/1982
and War in Comparative Religious Perspective, Dr. David Perry,
Santa Clara University, 04/02/2000
and Muslims fear backlash, USA Today, 09/16/2001
condemn acts, fear reprisals, Washington Post, 09/12/2001
closes Islamic schools BBC, 09/14/2001
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