Evil Does It

“Why must I be surrounded by frickin’ idiots?”
– Dr. Evil

I was listening to NPR this morning, their Weekend Edition program, when Scott Simon delivered a commentary on the recent attacks in Mumbai entitled “Evil in Mumbai.” He begins the article by sharing with us his increasing discomfort with the way journalists are searching for the motives of the people behind these attacks. “A word like ‘motive,’” he explains, “seems to imply there was reason or purpose. It suggests that, however profane their actions, the terrorists had the incentive of some goal in mind.” But he’s been a reporter for a long time and he’s come to his own conclusions—that “the perpetrators of such crimes might just be … evil” (ellipsis in original).

He goes on to say: “The people killed this week in Mumbai were not collateral damage, which has become an ugly enough term, but the very objects of damage: human beings who became the targets of a murder spree, however terrorists and apologists may ultimately embroider the assault with supposed political significance.”

These people are evil, says Scott Simon, and we should leave it at that.

Hearing a rhetorical argument of this caliber on NPR took me quite by surprise—NPR having, at least in my mind, a reputation for not reducing stories to highly-charged, emotional terms. I was surprised enough, in fact, to blog about it…. Because it echoes for me an ever-present danger that we humans face, have faced, will always face in our lives: The ease and comfort of dehumanizing the goals and methods of those who do not share our worldview.

Scott Simon’s commentary reminded me of “god terms” and “devil terms” as coined by Richard M. Weaver in The Ethics of Rhetoric. “God terms,” Weaver explains, “are words particular to a certain age and are vague … that seem impenetrable and automatically give a phrase positive meaning. In contrast, ‘devil terms’ are the mirror image” (Weaver 222-23). He gives “progress” and “freedom” as examples of god terms, “Nazi” and “Un-American” as devil terms.

My problem with Mr. Simon’s commentary is not that he labels the Mumbai attacks “evil,” per se, but the rhetorical baggage he topples on top of that—that we shouldn’t bother uncovering the motives behind the killings (if they even exist) and the implication that those who do so are terror “apologists.”

“Terror” and “evil” are two particularly potent devil terms these days—what with a war on the former and the axis of the latter. But what are these nebulous and impenetrable things? The international community is tellingly unable to agree upon a definition of terrorism. Is it an unlawful act of violence? A form of unconventional warfare? Psychological warfare? The use of terror as a means of coercion? An illegitimate form of protest? *shrug* But terrorists are evil—that much we do know!

There is something in Western logic called the law of the excluded middle. It states that any thing must either be or not be. It works wonders in calculus, but, unfortunately, when applied to ethics—and especially politics—it more often than not results in a false dilemma. The thing about god and devil terms is that they come with prepackaged false dilemmas. Either you’re a terrorist or you’re not. Either you’re evil or you’re not. What these propositions don’t realize is that in life no such universals can hold true for any length of time. We are all nothing but excluded middles and contradictions. “I am large, I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman declared in 1855. We continue to ignore him.

We understand our own culture, our own values and goals, our own methods for attaining them, and as such we understand how intricate and complex our desires can be. Thus, it is rare that we reduce ourselves to simple black and white, god and devil, terms (unless there’s an election). But when we are confronted with a value system dressed in markedly different trappings—ones we do not recognize—we do not bother to dig deeper than those trappings, to try to find the hidden (and so easily excluded) middle ground between us. Obi-Wan Kenobi warned Luke that “many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” Change that point of view and everything can seem alien, foreign, even evil.

For instance: What are we to make of people who would purposefully target not military installations but the residential districts of a city—not once, but repeatedly over time—in an effort to destroy the will of a people? Do they sound like terrorists?

Am I calling the United States evil? Of course not. I argue instead that “evil” is not something that one is or is not. No, like the role of a terrorist, evil is something that anyone, especially you and me, can adopt—depending on the situation and your point of view.

But why? Why do these people do this? Why cause so much pain? Why sacrifice yourself on the Altar of Terror?

President George W. Bush has equated acts of terrorism to acts of war. I disagree. I believe acts of terrorism are acts of desperation. These are people who see no legitimate avenue to vent their grievances—no peaceful means to resolve their problems. They have been oppressed, they have been marginalized, they have been excluded. And they will not go gentle into that good night. Does that justify their actions? Absolutely not. But understanding what motivates them brings us one step closer to preventing it from happening again.

Every person in this world exists within a set of economic, cultural, racial, etc. systems. These systems shape our ideologies and our actions. When we perceive a system that is overly oppressive, that does not allow us a means of self-expression and social justice, one course of action open to us is to change the system. Terrorists are an extreme example of this—though we must remember that no two terrorist groups fight for exactly the same thing. And we are not wholly innocent, because these are global systems that we assent to.

Perhaps this is a strange post to follow one entitled “Schadenfreude,” but … I’ve already invoked Walt Whitman once! Need I do so again?

The people behind the attacks on Mumbai were human, and as such they had motives and the incentive of some goal to push them to their act of heinous violence. I don’t care, one way or the other, if they were evil or not. I only care about taking steps to ensure that no reporter—not Scott Simon or anyone else—will ever have to cover another killing like this again.


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