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The Meaning and the Rhetoric of Evil: Auschwitz and Bin Laden

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(Invited essay published in the Russian Journal, June 17, 2011)

It is crucial to distinguish between the meaning of evil and the rhetoric of evil. The question of the meaning of evil is an interpretive question: What do we mean when we use the word "evil"? The rhetoric of evil, by contrast, pertains to the use of the word "evil" to serve ideological and political purposes. I will take up each in turn.

The Meaning of Evil

Traditionally, evil has been conceived as the absence or privation of goodness--a conception that harks back to Plato. Against this traditional viewpoint, other thinkers associate evil with the presence of something uniquely destructive. Schelling, for example, affirmed evil's reality as a principle of darkness manifesting in the grandiose exaltation of self-will. Similarly, at the core of what Nietzsche meant by evil was the concept of ressentiment--a particularly virulent and violent form of resentment and hatred born of impotence. And Freud located evil in a universal destructiveness lying at the core of human instinctual life. In my own recent work, I have proposed that large-scale human destructiveness can often be grasped as being reactive to collective trauma.

A number of philosophers were led to rethink the meaning of evil in reaction to the atrocities of twentieth-century totalitarianism. For Levinas, for example, evil was not just the absence or failure of goodness; it was a nihilistic "excess" that constituted a complete break with ethical normativity itself. Jonas, too, attributed the upsurge of evil in the twentieth century to a nihilism that eradicated ethical normativity.

It was Hannah Arendt who fleshed out what such nihilism entailed. She, more than any other philosopher, undertook the rethinking of the very meaning of evil demanded by the horrors of totalitarianism and the Nazi period. According to her analysis, totalitarian domination eventuates in an absolute evil that can no longer be deduced from humanly comprehensible motives. Invoking a phrase originally used by Kant but giving it a very different meaning, she referred to such absolute evil as radical evil. Radical evil involves much more than acting on the basis of familiar "sinful motives." It involves making human beings as human beings "superfluous" and dispensable--by nullifying what makes human life distinctively human, by liquidating human freedom, spontaneity, individuality, and morality. (Victims of the Rwandan genocide were called "cockroaches" by its perpetrators.) Using the example of Nazi "desk murderers" like Eichmann, Arendt described how radical evil took on a kind of "banality," whereby monstrous, massive crimes against humanity were committed as if they were "standard behavior"--mundane, normal activities of everyday life. Such was the nature of the total moral collapse that Arendt tried to capture in her elucidations of radical evil and the banality of evil.

Nazism and the Holocaust are certainly among the most horrifying instances of radical evil appearing in human collective and political life. I believe this is so in part because in the Nazi death camps such evil joined forces with a technological way of being in which, as Heidegger put it, all that is, including human beings, is regarded as resources or "standing reserve" for use and exploitation. But radical evil is no stranger to human history. One need think only of the atrocities of the medieval "holy" Crusades or, in the United States, the massive assaults on Native Americans and their way of life. We can anticipate that new, unimagined, and more horrifying forms of evil will continue appear. Closest to home for Americans, no one who witnessed the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, and the instantaneous mass murder of more than 3000 civilians, can think that radical evil was brought to an end with the defeat of the Nazis. My reference here to 9/11 leads me to my second theme--the rhetoric of evil.

The Rhetoric of Evil

In her study of totalitarianism, Arendt provided a cogent analysis of the essence of political ideology. Such "isms," she said, claim to explain all historical happenings by deducing them from a single self-evident idea or premise--for example, that history "progresses" through the elimination of inferior races (Nazism) or decadent classes (Communism). Once established, these ironclad logical systems become, like paranoid delusions, immune to the impact of actual experience. Further, they readily devolve into systems of totalitarian terror, as they give warrant to the unbridled liquidation of anyone or anything believed to impede the historical process.

The seeds of the rhetoric of evil can be found in the ancient religious ideology, originating in Persia and pervasive in contemporary religious fundamentalism, known as Manichaeism--the idea that the movement of history is explained by an eternal struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. In the rhetoric of evil, Manichaeism is harnessed for political purposes--one's own group is claimed to embody the forces of good, and the opposing group, the forces of evil. Through such attributions, which are inherently nationalistic or ethnocentric, one's political aims are justified as being in the service of the good. Thus, for Ronald Reagan, the USSR became the "Evil Empire."

Collective Trauma and Resurrective Ideology

The experience of collective trauma makes us particularly receptive to the lure of the rhetoric of evil, as was seen with particular clarity in post-9/11 America. In my book, Trauma and Human Existence (Routledge, 2007), I contended that the essence of emotional trauma lies in the shattering of what I called the absolutisms of everyday life, the system of illusory beliefs that allow us to function in the world, experienced as stable, predictable, and safe. Such shattering is a massive loss of innocence exposing the inescapable contingency of existence on a universe that is chaotic and unpredictable and in which no safety or continuity of being can be assured. Emotional trauma brings us face to face with our existential vulnerability and with death and loss as possibilities that define our existence and that loom as constant threats. Often traumatized people try to restore the lost illusions shattered by trauma through some form of what I have called resurrective ideology .

The terrorist attack of 9/11 was a devastating collective trauma that inflicted a rip in the fabric of the American psyche. In horrifyingly demonstrating that even America can be assaulted on its native soil, the attack of 9/11 shattered Americans' collective illusions of safety, inviolability, and grandiose invincibility, illusions that had long been mainstays of the American historical identity. In the wake of such shattering, Americans became much more susceptible to resurrective ideologies that promised to restore the grandiose illusions that have been lost.

Following 9/11, the Bush administration declared war on global terrorism and drew America into a grandiose, holy crusade that enabled Americans to feel delivered from trauma, chosen by God to rid the world of evil and to bring their way of life (= goodness) to every people on earth. Through such resurrective ideology and its rhetoric of evil, Americans could evade the excruciating vulnerability that had been exposed by the attack and once again feel great, powerful, and godlike.

Tragically, every effort to actualize such ideological illusions inflicts collective trauma on those who are attacked, and they respond with an intensification of their resurrective ideologies. It is this dialectic of traumatic collapse and ideological resurrection that fuels the lamentable, endlessly recurring cycle of atrocity and counter-atrocity that has been so characteristic of human history.

Nearly 10 years after the attack of 9/11, Osama bin Laden -- a contemporary symbol of radical evil -- was killed. Understandably, most Americans were glad that a monstrous mass murderer was brought to justice. But what was happening when jubilant crowds reacted to the killing by chanting and cheering "USA"? Was this not another effort to resurrect American invincibility? Are not Americans in danger of forgetting the terrible lesson they learned in consequence of the collective tragedy of 9/11 -- that they are vulnerable human beings, just as vulnerable to assault, destruction, death, and loss as are all other people around the world? Such forgetfulness of the vulnerability of our existence has been rampant in other sectors of American life as well -- for example, in the obliviousness to the perils of nuclear power and global warming, driven into the foreground of our collective awareness by the nuclear crisis in Japan and the recent devastating storms in southern America.

Is there an alternative to ideological illusion and the rhetoric of evil? Yes, there is. We must remember our common human vulnerabilities and bring them into a collective conversation within which our existential anxiety can be held and better borne.