Today's date:
Winter 2002


Deliver Us From Evil

William B. Parent is director of the Policy Forum of the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research.

The word of war in President George W. Bush's arsenal that seems to resonate best for him is "evil." He has summoned the country to a long war against "evil-doers," and in his recent State of the Union he anchored our conviction against an "axis of evil." I don't think I am alone in cringing whenever I hear the President lean on the word evil. It is a weak word. It defines a war impossible to win. I can almost see a hand of knowledge circling the word in red and writing in the margin: What is he talking about? What does he mean by this?

Evil is a word so vague in this context it is almost meaningless. No question, the other side deeply, and perhaps more fervently than we, also believes it is fighting evil. They, however, have defined their evil more clearly and to stunning effect. For those who flew the jetliners into the World Trade Center and those who support them, this is a war against the "Infidels," those who do not live in a very strict adherence to Islam. Our enemies consider secularism and non-Islamic faiths to be the evil. The Koran states: "Fight and slay the Pagans wherever you find them...the deviators, the are the fuel of hell." They have defined exactly what they mean by evil and it is a definition so powerful that young terrorists can be trained, in the words of Osama Bin Laden to "have no intention except to enter paradise by killing you." And by "you" he means us, as Americans, Westerners, Israelis, and those we love.

At the moment, we are fighting for freedom and against evil against an enemy that believes that freedom is evil. We need to recast this war more clearly in terms that our enemies and we can better understand as differences. We need to define what we mean by evil at least as well as the other side has for themselves, for our sake as well as theirs.

What made flying commercial planes loaded with fuel into skyscrapers a morally reprehensible act, which is the definition of evil, was that its result was the slaughter other human beings. I could add adjectives like innocent or unsuspecting, but they wouldn't make it matter more. What distinguishes this form of evil among the more familiar evils of fascism, totalitarianism, religious and racial hatred is that, in the name of a god, it has no respect for the value, the sacredness if you will, of human life on earth. This is the true terror in this terrorism.

One of the most powerful statements of our beliefs in the aftermath of September 11 was the New York Times daily publication of stories describing the individual lives of those killed. It described each one in some intimate detail by his or her humanity; not in martyred service to a patriotic or religious cause, but by what was remembered by those who loved them daily: their families, friends and co-workers.

Our goal post-September 11 is to prevent such a murder from happening again. If this is the case, then the task before us is to make clear that what we are seeking is to defend life itself. We must make it clear that this is our cause: the preservation and security of human beings, the value of each individual life. We have to say clearly and simply that you are welcome to believe that I am going to burn in hell, but you can't kill me for that. It is a philosophical war we must somehow eventually win.

Disrespect for life, and its inevitable tool, murder, is the ultimate evil. German National Socialism was hideous for many reasons, but in the Holocaust it achieved evil. Communism may have been misguided, but in the killing fields of Pol Pot and the pogroms of Stalin, it achieved evil. In our own short history, we have been evil in the holds of slave ships and legal lynchings, in the donation of infected blankets to Indians and in the burning of their homes. I believe we are better than that now. Americans may at times be callous, but we are not murderous. And we must demonstrate to that segment of an Islamic world that is living under an ancient and murderous mythology that they are wrong, that indeed earthly life is sacred in and of itself.

To fight a war-which by definition involves both killing and sacrifice of life-for the sake of life is a morally complicated task, to be sure. Consistency is everything. This is why other peoples of the world ask that we not employ the death penalty against captives and prisoners and that our allies and we incarcerate them by humane standards of international agreements on the conduct of war. We need to come to the aid of starving refugees with food and medicine with the same aggressive will we employ militarily. We must act where millions of lives are being needlessly lost, for instance to AIDS in Southern Africa, with the same urgency we brought to the epidemic in the United States.

We know that President Bush along with millions of Americans, regularly recites the Lord's Prayer, which is deeply rooted in the songs of Abrahamic cultures that include Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and which concludes with the plea to "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." At that moment in the meditation, we glimpse our demons, maybe personal, maybe universal. And we pray that face to face with the specific evil we envision, what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature can prevail against it.

The President must help us to better define and envision this evil, so the better angels of our nature-and our soldiers and policy-makers-understand just what the task is and how we have to behave to prevail.