Why We Should Bring Back Evil

On the Necessity of Calling Out What Is Truly Despicable

A Manifestation of Evil: Hands still bloody, the man who attacked a British soldier with a meat cleaver in London is shown on television footage.
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A Manifestation of Evil: Hands still bloody, the man who attacked a British soldier with a meat cleaver in London is shown on television footage.

By Leonard Fein

Published June 01, 2013, issue of June 07, 2013.
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One of the loveliest songs we have — to my way of thinking, a worthy competitor of “Amazing Grace” — is from Psalm 34, verses 14 and 15. Especially as sung and recorded by Chava Alberstein, who invites audience participation and on a good night will harmonize with the audience — check it out on You Tube — the song, in Hebrew, is called “Mi Ha’Ish“: “Who is the man who desires life, and loves days, that he may see good therein? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.”

Keeping one’s tongue from evil and one’s lips from guile is not all that easy. But my greater concern here is with the word “evil” itself. It is a word that was quite out of fashion for a long while, as we cast about for other and softer ways of understanding and explaining malevolence, wickedness.

The most popular alternative explanation was essentially derived from social work, which sought — and often still seeks — to attribute malicious behavior to a dysfunctional family background or a traumatic experience in childhood. So understood, one could withhold judgment of the miscreant. No blame, no shame; instead, intimate understanding, even empathy.

Lately, however, the idea of evil has enjoyed a revival. That may well be because there are so many handy examples to cite. How, after all, can one be satisfied with a social work type explanation of the hijackers and murderers of 9/11? Must we “understand” Osama bin Laden rather than condemning him? And the bombers at the Boston Marathon? And so on and so on, a list that is too easily expandable.

But: As I have suggested before, we needn’t look to the high drama these examples embody. We can look down the street, around the corner, at a nearby soup kitchen or at the Congressional decision to cut back on SNAP, as the food stamp program is now called. We can look to the child soldiers of Africa or the wretched prison conditions in dozen of countries around the world. We can look at the insult and injury of abject poverty, in our own country and in Bangladesh and in hundreds of other dehumanized or dehumanizing settings around our broken plant. Are these not examples of evil? And if, as I believe, they undoubtedly are, does not the word “evil” fit, and snugly at that, much of the data of contemporary life?

Some people, however, still snicker at the word, perhaps because it calls to mind Ronald Reagan’s use of “evil empire” to describe the Soviet Union. But stop here and consider: Was Reagan wrong? The more we learn about the Soviet Union, the more evil it turns out to have been. In this connection, see Timothy Snyder’s remarkable book, “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” an astonishing description and analysis of the ways in which pre-war Germany and the USSR fed each other. Perhaps Reagan was impolitic — or, perhaps, his candor encouraged the USSR’s dissidents, hastened the collapse of the Berlin Wall and, ultimately, of the USSR itself. Parsing the subtleties of history, the interplay of events, the effects of superficially unconnected phenomena, is an endless challenge, rarely overcome.

It is not that the social workers are wrong. The dysfunctional family and the remembered trauma explain a great deal. It seems to me, however, that they risk explaining too much. At some point, what is wanted is less explanation and more condemnation, less the inherent patience of social work, more the righteous indignation that says, bluntly, “Enough!”

I cannot ever say or write the word “Enough!” without recalling Yitzhak Rabin’s remarkable speech to the Knesset in 1993: “We are destined to live together, on the same soil in the same land. We, the soldiers who have returned from battle stained with blood, we who have seen our relatives and friends killed before our eyes, we who have attended their funerals and cannot look into the eye of their parents, we who have come from a land where parents bury their children, we who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today in a loud and clear voice: Enough! We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred towards you. We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men. We are today giving peace a chance and again saying to you in a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears, enough!”

One can legitimately quibble with Rabin’s assertion that he was speaking “in a clear voice.” Plus: Seductive rhetoric is one thing, productive action quite another. Still, now and then the rhetoric births the action. In the endless battle against evil, our instruction is straightforward: “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.”

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com

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