The devil is back

What is political evil and can it be stopped? Political scientist and moral philosopher Alan Wolfe sat down with Anna Polonyi to discuss the issue of how people react to evil on a political level.

The European: What brought you to be interested in political evil as a concept?
Wolfe: I’m one of those people who became politically aware during the Vietnam era and I was very much against the war and a part of the whole protest generation. As time went by, especially after examples of ethnic cleansing and genocide took place in the 1980s and 1990s, I began to realize that we in the West really were under an obligation to come to the help of people who are victimized by evil leaders. So, I had a change of mind. And I became what you would call a liberal humanitarian, a believer in humanitarian intervention. Now I’ve had a third outlook. This focus that so many of us have made upon our responsibility to protect people against evil leaders has backfired in many cases, and we have to be much more careful about using the word evil when we talk about foreign policy and questions of intervention.

The European: That brings us to the question of what political evil actually is.
Wolfe: Why people do awful things is a perpetually fascinating question. Evil as a subject has attracted all of the world’s greatest thinkers, from the Greeks through the Christian tradition, through all the religious traditions and the Enlightenment. It strikes me that if we approach the problem of evil as a kind of psychological category, ultimately it’s a mystery. If we look at evil in religious terms, that is, if we pose the problem of how a God that is all-knowing and all-powerful could nonetheless have produced evil in the world, we also wind up with metaphysical, theological questions we can’t answer. So focusing on political evil, the use of evil for political purposes, gives us a way of responding to it. We can look at the political objectives that cause evil and respond to those objectives. Acts are easier to change than people. Ultimately we can’t reform their nature, but we can limit the damage that evil people use to achieve political aims.

The European: How does one recognize political evil? There seem to be a variety of definitions.
Wolfe: People do define it differently, but this is why it’s important to insist on universal ideas about human rights and human dignity. For me, political evil is when the leaders of either states, or movements that aspire to be a state, carry out murderous objectives against entirely innocent people in order to achieve their strategic aims. In that sense, for political evil, there has to be a strategy. There has to be a goal that could be achieved. It’s not just violence per se, I think it’s capricious or arbitrary use of violence against entirely innocent people that makes evil different from war. Evil things can happen during wars, but wars themselves are not evil, because it’s two armies fighting against each other, as opposed to the systematic destruction of innocent people.

The European: How does that relate to the amount of evil that is necessary to accede in a political structure?
Wolfe: There’s a great deal of evil in the world, but if we are going to deal with it effectively, then we are going to have to narrow our focus. There is lots of evil in the world that is really genuinely evil, but doesn’t serve a political end. For example, I think that the cover-up of pedophilia by high-officials in the Church is evil, but it’s not really political, it’s a bureaucratic cover-up. There are people that believe that abortion is evil, that it is worse than genocide. This is not my position but that would be a form of evil that really doesn’t have a political dimension.

The European: The political scientist Hans Morgentau argued that morality does not have a place in politics between nations. Is framing things in terms of morality helpful?
Wolfe: The person that embodies that point of view in the US grew up in Germany: Henry Kissinger. I definitely disagree with that. Foreign policy officials have to be ‘realists’ and the tradition of realpolitik is an important one that can’t be ignored. But it’s time to go beyond this discussion of either pure realpolitik on the one hand, or some kind of Woodrow Wilson-like meddling to promote human rights on the other. After the formation of the United Nations and the passage of the international treaties of human rights, there really is a responsibility to protect and a moral obligation. The question is how to do it. Denouncing Osama Bin Laden as Hitler reincarnate, or seeing terrorism as the latest embodiment of the fascist movements of the 1930s is a misplaced diagnosis.

The European: People are rather wary of ideologies in general. Is that because they are attributed with the particular kind of evils that happened in their name?
Wolfe: There are people who believe that radical Islam or Zionism is inherently evil. Those are both ideologies in a sense. When we attribute evil to an ideology, we are going in the wrong direction. Our goal should not be to inflate and exaggerate evil by giving it ideological character, our job should be to narrow it and confine it, so that we can treat it in specific circumstances.

The European: What would be the most effective way of treating it?
Wolfe: Evil takes various forms: terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide and what I call counter-evil, like the use of torture or extraordinary rendition in order to fight back against evil. Each form requires a different kind of response. Overall, it’s important to recognize that they all serve political objectives, but the way we respond to genocide has to be very different to the way we respond to ethnic cleansing. One of the problems is that we tend to conflate them.

The European: Why are these categories important? Is there a hierarchy of evil?
Wolfe: Technically speaking, genocide seeks to exterminate another race, whereas ethnic cleansing seeks to move people from a different race from one place to another. Now in reality, they will blend. When you try and force people off their land, you kill a lot of them, and it looks like genocide. It’s understandable why people say that the two of them are the same. I think we have to recognize that genocide is the worst of all the forms of political evil. When people are targeted for extermination solely because of their race, it is extremely important to send out a very clear message that this will not be tolerated. Ethnic cleansing on the other hand is much more morally complicated, in part because it’s much more common. People have been moving people around for a long period of time. The Germans were responsible during the Hitler era for the worst genocide ever, the Holocaust, yet at the same time Germans were ethnically cleansed after the war, when the maps of Europe were redrawn. Or the United States, for example, is a society that has been fairly effective, I think, in arguing to prevent genocide. But many people would say the removal of American Indians was a form of ethnic cleansing.

The European: Looking at terrorism as an example of political evil, it seems that the measures taken against, i.e. the war on terror, not been altogether successful. Is that because we are trying fight terror with more terror?
Wolfe: After the 9/11 attacks against the United States, President Bush compared the leaders of Al-Qaeda to the totalitarian leaders of the 1930s like Hitler. It was a fundamentally crazy comparison. Hitler had a huge army and it was in command of a centralized state apparatus. Terrorists lack a state. It’s an entirely different kind of phenomenon. So by fighting a global war against terror, we could never properly identify the targets. When Obama became president, he dropped all the rhetoric of Bush and Cheney, and simply tried to kill Osama Bin Laden and eventually succeeded. Israel is also a victim of evil: Hamas and Hezbollah are terrorist organizations, and they regularly practice horrendous evils of killing innocent Israelis. But the Israeli response, which is to compare them again to the fascist movements and to say that radical Palestinians are just like Nazis, completely mixes up categories and has prevented Israel from engaging in the political sentiment in the Middle East that would significantly reduce terror. That said, President Patil responded much more effectively to the terror attacks in Mumbai by not engaging in heated rhetoric against Pakistan, and Zapatero in Spain also did a good job after the Madrid terrorist attacks.

The European: Taking into account that evil genders more evil, and that good and evil seem to be fundamental elements of human nature, is political evil inevitable?
Wolfe: I don’t think it ultimately matters whether good and evil are fundamental to human nature are. In my book, I address whether or not everyone has an inherent capacity for evil. I don’t think they do, but ultimately it’s irrelevant, because even if everybody had some innate tendency, not everybody has an innate capacity for politics. It’s really the political skills of people who engage in political evil, rather than their evil intentions, that ought to engage us. If Osama Bin Laden, who I believe was a genuinely evil man, wasn’t such a brilliant political tactician, we wouldn’t be concerned about him. It was his political abilities, his ability to get people to die for his cause that caused our concern. Not because he had psychological problems. I don’t care about his human nature; I just wished we had stopped him earlier.

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