Political Evil: What it is and How to Combat it

  • Alan Wolfe
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 339 pp.
  • November 2, 2011

What role did the nature of evil in man play in history’s greatest and most terrible conflicts? Does evil in humankind pervade the struggles of today’s world?

Reviewed by Robert Swan

Evil is a knotty philosophical and practical problem. It is a sad fact that human beings visit bestial cruelty on innocents in large numbers. As Stalin put it, the death of one is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic. This insightful observation by one of history’s worst tyrants illustrates the complexities of trying to come to grips with attitudes toward and policies designed to challenge or even prevent humanity’s vilest behavior. Alan Wolfe analyzes the nature of political evil as a special category of evil, and suggests practical methods of combating its various manifestations in the modern world.

Political evil is defined as “the willful, malevolent and gratuitous death, destruction and suffering inflicted upon innocent people by the leaders of movements and states in their strategic efforts to achieve realizable objectives.”

According to Wolfe, “not all evil is political evil.” Political evil should never be conflated with radical evil represented by dictators like Hitler and Stalin. They pursued goals that were not realizable, and of such magnitude as to place them outside the rubric of political evil (as defined by Wolfe). There is “everyday evil,” like that committed by serial killers, or isolated eruptions of violence like the Columbine tragedy, neither of which constitute the kind of evil upon which Wolfe focuses in this book.

There are, according to Wolfe, four distinct types of specifically political evil with which we should be concerned in the 21st century: terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide and the use of torture and other acts that while employed by states to combat evil, are themselves self-evidently evil acts. These are described by Wolfe as counterevil.

Wolfe argues for a calm, reflective, limited and objective response to political evil, taking into consideration local pressures and the specific grievances of each of the groups involved. He points out that in many instances the rhetoric of condemnation focusing on broad assertions of extreme evil creates a tendency to whitewash one side in a conflict in which both sides may be culpable. Wolfe is particularly concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and his analysis with regard to this seemingly intractable international situation is worth considering.

This book has many virtues. Wolfe has done us a service in reminding us that human beings should be sensitive to their own fallibility, and to the dangers of a hubristic mustering of overwhelming force where the situation either doesn’t warrant such a response, or where doing so does more harm than good. He also rightly argues that the response to evil must be nuanced and gauged to the particular situation without assuming that the individuals involved on either side of a conflict are devils incarnate, with whom one cannot parlay.

Unfortunately, the book also contains muddled analogies, broad inaccurate historical generalizations, fallacious reasoning and ad hominem attacks on individuals Wolfe dislikes. A forensic analysis of all these problems would require more space than I am allotted for this review. I provide a sample below.

There is a discussion of different types of evil, including political evil, but politics as a concept is never adequately explored — necessary where one wants to make the kind of distinctions Wolfe is asserting in this book — nor is evil analyzed in the necessary philosophical depth. Wolfe’s book would benefit from a deep engagement with basic moral philosophy and philosophical perspectives such as utilitarianism or Kantian deontology, which would aid in exploring the complexities of these issues. Further, one is inclined to question whether the distinction Wolfe draws between political and radical evil in reference to such men as Hitler and Stalin is really defensible.

In addition to all of this, the epistemological implications of some of Wolfe’s assertions are daunting. Wolfe seems, at times, to know the inner workings of the minds of world leaders, and prognosticates regarding the future of world events in such absolute terms that Cassandra would be envious. One example (there are others from which to choose in the book): we are told that Osama Bin Laden had limited objectives in mind when planning terrorist acts. Wolfe may be right, but how does he know?

More serious is this astonishing assertion: “Political leaders whose speechifying insists that Americans are an exceptional people blessed by God to advance the cause of liberty rushed to copy the ugliest methods of the totalitarian states that were once their enemies.” (Emphasis mine).

This sentence is meant to remind us of the dangers of the Bush-Cheney security regime, which Wolfe justly criticizes. But did the United States rush to copy the ugliest methods of totalitarian states? Bad things were done. Certainly serious questions about the way our intelligence gathering impinges on the rights of ordinary people must be asked. Scrutiny must be brought to bear; proper limits on the treatment of combatants in wartime must be set. But the horrors of a Hitlerian concentration camp or Soviet Gulag were not replicated at Guantanamo. A facile comparison between the Department of Homeland Security and the Gestapo or the NKVD is not conducive to the kind of measured public debate Wolfe seems to value. Having warned world leaders about the dangers of “slippery slope” arguments and hyperbolic rhetoric, Wolfe should avoid them himself.

Having said all this, is this book worth reading? Absolutely; it represents the reflections of an intelligent, humane and learned scholar who has many important things to say to policy makers in a world that is dangerous and sadly in need of tempering voices to aide in navigating dangerous international waters. It represents a noble attempt to tackle a daunting subject, and some of the key insights the book contains, despite its flaws, are worth considering as we chart a course for the future.

Robert Swan teaches history and philosophy in the International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md.

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