Ethics & International Affairs Volume 16.1 (Spring 2002): Articles: Comprehending "Evil": Challenges for Law and Policy [Abstract]

May 2, 2002

In the aftermath of the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, the categories of "good" and "evil" have come to dominate the rhetorical response of the U.S. government. This article investigates the implications of using the concept of "evil" as a major public policy rationale. The article focuses on the Bush Administration's attempts to frame its policy around this term in the current campaign against terrorism, but also considers recent uses of the term in the growing literature on war crimes, genocide, and domestic repression. Because the concept of evil has deep roots in various theological understandings, we examine its religious meanings (largely within the Christian tradition) and the problems that arise when applying it in the secular context of government policy. In assessing these problems, we focus on Hannah Arendt's efforts to comprehend the evils of totalitarianism within a secular perspective.

We argue that in contemporary policy discourse, "evil" is mostly invoked as a term of condemnation rather than an analytical concept, and that this usage tends to inhibit rather than encourage the search for explanation. It facilitates evasion of accountability within a secular framework of justice based on positive law. The alternative is to approach terrorism in the language of secular law, which rests on fixed criteria to regulate the use of force (in situations of war) and to prosecute and punish (in matters of crime). Such an approach complements and should encourage parallel efforts to comprehend events by examining their causes and historical context.

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