Responding To Evil: Steven Paulikas in the NYTimes


Gather around your caliph, so that you may return as you once were for ages, kings of the earth and knights of war.
-ISIS press release declaring the “Islamic Caliphate”

A few days ago, in the New York Times, Steven Paulikas posed the question of evil:

As someone entrusted with a role of moral authority, I am deeply unsettled by this path from evil in political rhetoric to violence. Our inability to answer fundamental questions about the invocation of evil in our public discourse has only increased human suffering. It is imperative that we demand clarity in our common understanding of evil. How can we be sure something is evil and not simply opposed to our interests? Can evil ever fully be destroyed, and if not, is there no point at which we can cease our crusade against it? If evil is absolute, does one have an absolute right to use any means necessary to obliterate it?

Paulikas was spurred on to this question by a conversation between Stephen Colbert and Bill O’Reilly, after the Orlando shooting. In the video, O’Reilly advocates officially declaring war against the Islamic State, and promises NATO forces will “annihilate” the evil that is ISIS “command and control.” In the course of the interview, O’Reilly makes a leap from the Orlando shooting — which he claims is an unpreventable type of violence — to enlisting NATO against ISIS.

Implicitly, O’Reilly’s rallying support for Donald Trump. (Just as Paulikas’s reference to “political rhetoric” is indirectly criticizing Trump.) Trump’s rhetoric about waging war on ISIS is based more on the emotional satisfaction of imagining hostile guerrillas being “annihilated” than on any feasible plan to uproot one (pernicious, entrenched) version of Islamic terrorism in the Islamic Middle East, where ISIS and other perversions of Islam thrive.

O’Reilly’s leap, from Omar Mateen to ISIS command and control, is founded on his understanding of evil. Both are evil and inevitably connected; you must destroy them both. Paulikas is right to pause over the word itself. O’Reilly and Colbert spar for a few minutes, but never reach any conclusions about evil. How can we tell the difference between evil, self-interest, and self-defense? Furthermore, where is evil: in the person(s), the act, or the idea?

The second question is easier to answer. Evil clearly does not reside in people. Try tracing the evil deed back to the heart of the evildoer, and there’s no pattern. We will never know how exactly how Adolf Hitler felt, subjectively, about the genesis and progress of the Holocaust. Does it matter, in the end? Nor did Hitler “give birth,” by himself, to the evils of the Third Reich. Nazis like Adolf Eichmann committed evil acts and felt like bureaucrats. A serial killer like John Wayne Gacy, on the other hand, feels something quite different, presumably, at the moment when he commits murder…and that pathology is different once again from the sickness behind the mass shooting in Orlando. To call all three “evil men” explains nothing.

Nor is the evil in the act, per se. Causing harm is as much a matter of opportunity as it is the fruit of “evil.” Here in the USA, Omar Mateen had easy access to weapons that would have been very difficult to obtain in most of the rest of the industrialized world. He showed signs of terroristic, violent intent, and too few people paid attention. Put Mateen into custody, or deny him the weapons of mass murder, and the deaths in Orlando might have been avoided. But the “evil” that motivated Mateen would still be there, somewhere, waiting its chance.

In short, evil is an idea, and a certain kind of idea at that. It is the chasm, within one ideology, between a romanticized moment in the past and a present “fallenness”: life in a waste land. Evil has nothing really to do with self-interest. Clearly Omar Mateen was not acting in his own interest. Horrifying pathological crimes, like molestation or mass murder, are impossible to deter with criminal penalties; they are not “calculated risks.” Likewise, the project of the Holocaust was, viewed in a cold light, an irrational and costly diversion of German resources and troops in the middle of a war. Rather, such horror is inevitably bound up with sickly, sentimental emblems. Think, for instance, of Hitler’s posters of Aryan families, torchbearers for the Nazis’ fanciful German Reichstag. Today, the contradiction of “evil” is there in the gap between a vast, powerful “Islamic Caliphate” — that ridiculous, muddled fantasy of an empire — and the blurry, disgusting publicity videos where ISIS markets a single brutal act (beheading a hostage, in one case) as a victory against the West.

There is something pathetic and inevitable, where there is evil, about this confusion of Paradise with wrack, and waste. I’m thinking of John Wayne Gacy’s nightmarish clown costume, and the anaesthesized victims, forced to pantomime something Gacy compulsively envisioned. I’m thinking of the house in the final episode of True Detective, where decaying things are piled everywhere, caked with dirt, hoarded despite the heat and swamp. The serial killer Errol Childress is there, speaking like a British butler. His wife answers from a small cleared space, grinning horribly in an old chair, as if they are sitting down for an elegant breakfast. They know they are eating burned dirt-specked eggs, yet at the same time, their daydream of an antebellum plantation still hangs in the air, going rotten. Errol’s books, stacked as high as his shoulder in derelict heaps, are the same. They’ve been gradually collected as if to complete a real library, then dropped and added to the filth.

In The Symbolism of Evil, Paul Ricoeur writes,

Dread acquires its ethical quality…[when] Man asks himself: since I experience this failure, this sickness, this evil, what sin have I committed?

This moment begins the real chase, in Ricoeur’s text, after the nature of evil, by defining its opposite. If the ethical question is, “what sin have I committed?” evil begins with the alternative question, “Given this failure, this sickness…what has been taken from me? Who betrayed me? Where, when, shall I get my home and glory back?”

Which returns us, once more, to Late Night With Steven Colbert. Halfway in, Bill O’Reilly invokes the Second Amendment to brush off a question about Mateen, and begins to ramble on about the Minutemen. There they are, rifles in hand, facing down the British, steadfast for the American cause. There wasn’t a segue, as is usually the case with O’Reilly: you’d think Americans, two hundred years later, were still buying muskets. (“Our situation is hardly comparable to Lexington and Concord,” Colbert retorts.) When our Homeland Security Agency was created by the Bush Administration, the American “homeland” suddenly appeared with it, already under threat from the first moment of its existence. The term isn’t new anymore, but I still can’t tell you what our “homeland” is, exactly, nor can anyone.

So it’s not quite right to say, with Paulikas, that Ricoeur thinks of evil as a “black hole” within thought. It is more complicated than that. We use symbols to personify Evil, but what is more, as an abstraction present in our world, evil is its childish, impoverished, gaudy symbols. It is a desire to re-create the past, with vengeful force, while being vague about what the past was.


The map ISIS has made and publicized of its future empire looks like something a grade-schooler might draw, in crayon, over a map of Europe. The point still gets across: Islamic Europe. So, to a true believer, it doesn’t matter when precisely America was great. All that matters is making it great, again, by any means necessary.