The new face of evil

The Covington News - - OPINION -

As Han­nah Arendt fore­saw, we are once again up against the ques­tion of evil. An Amer­i­can pho­to­jour­nal­ist, James Fo­ley, was pre­sented to the cam­era and me­thod­i­cally de­cap­i­tated. The in­stru­ment was not the ax re­served for roy­alty or the whoosh­ing blade prompted by that re­former Joseph-Ig­nace Guil­lotin, but an or­di­nary look­ing knife. Death would be nei­ther swift nor pain­less. This, some­where in the bleached desert, was pure evil.

I used to not be­lieve in evil. When Ron­ald Rea­gan called the Soviet Union “the evil em­pire,” I thought it was a dandy phrase but also a con­fes­sion of ig­no­rance. The word it­self con­notes some­thing or some­one di­a­bol­i­cal — bad for the sake of bad. The Soviet Union was bad, I con­ceded, but not for no rea­son. It was bad be­cause it was in­se­cure, oc­cu­py­ing the flat, invit­ing, Eurasian plain, and be­cause it had a dif­fer­ent sys­tem of gov­ern­ment that it dearly wanted to pro­tect. Rea­gan had it right, though. The Soviet Union was evil.

Now we are fac­ing a dif­fer­ent type of evil. The Is­lamic State, in whose name Fo­ley was be­headed, mur­ders with aban­don. It seems to love death the way the fas­cists once did. It is Sunni, so it mas­sacres Shi­ites. It is rad­i­cal Sunni, so it elim­i­nates apos­tates. It is Mus­lim, so it kills Yazidis, a mi­nor­ity with a reli­gion of its own, and takes, as plun­der, their women as con­cu­bines. Men are laid in a ditch and shot in graves of their own mak­ing.

The Nazis are back — dif­fer­ently dressed, speak­ing a dif­fer­ent lan­guage and mur­der­ing os­ten­si­bly for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, but ac­tu­ally for the same — in­tol­er­ance, ha­tred, ex­cite­ment and just be­cause they can. The Is­lamic State’s be­hav­ior is be­yond ex­pli­ca­tion, not re­act­ing as some sug­gest to the war in Iraq — al­though in time it will try to set­tle some scores with Amer­ica — but mur­der­ing and tor­tur­ing and en­slav­ing be­cause this is what it wants to do. It is both fu­tile and taste­less to lay off blame on oth­ers — the West, the colo­nial­ists of old or the per­sis­tent Zion­ists — or to some­how find guilt in the ac­tions of the rich or pow­er­ful be­cause they are rich or pow­er­ful. You can blame the vic­tim. You can even kill him.

In the week­end Fi­nan­cial Times news­pa­per, the Bri­tish writer Martin Amis tack­led the ques­tion that ob­sessed Arendt and so many oth­ers -- the na­ture of evil and its ul­ti­mate per­son­i­fi­ca­tion, Hitler. Amis men­tions some his­to­ri­ans who have at­tempted to un­der­stand Hitler — none of them suc­ceeded — and set­tles fi­nally on Primo Levi, the great Ital­ian writer of the Holo­caust who was sent to Auschwitz. It was there, when a guard “bru­tally snatched” away an ici­cle Levi had bro­ken off to slake his thirst, that he asked in his poor Ger­man, “Warum?” The guard replied, “Hier ist kein warum” — there is no why here. There was no why in all of Auschwitz.

Amis, too, has looked for the why. His lat­est novel, “The Zone of In­ter­est,” is about the Holo­caust and he too can­not find a core of rea­son or ex­pla­na­tion in the events that change our un­der­stand­ing of who we are. All fall short. It’s as if they bump up against the camp’s elec­tri­fied fence and, with a hideous sound, are evap­o­rated. Amis leads us to Levi’s book “The Truce” and a pas­sage he had not seen be­fore. Levi had made his peace with not un­der­stand­ing. “Per­haps one can­not,” Levi wrote, “what is more one must not, un­der­stand what hap­pened, be­cause to un­der­stand is al­most to jus­tify.”

You see this hap­pen­ing now. The atroc­i­ties of the Is­lamic State are at­trib­uted to the Iraq War and what it did to the re­gion. In the cur­rent edi­tion of For­eign Af­fairs, John J. Mearsheimer, a Univer­sity of Chicago po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, at­tributes Vladimir Putin’s bad be­hav­ior to the West’s bad strat­egy. “Why the Ukraine Cri­sis Is the West’s Fault,” it is ti­tled. Putin is al­most en­tirely ef­fect. Ev­ery­one else is cause.

Putin is cer­tainly no Hitler (or Stalin). But the cat­e­gory of evil re­mains use­ful. It as­signs agency where it be­longs — not with the vic­tims or even with the en­emy, as Western leftists did for too long with Stalin, but with the per­son or force that is do­ing evil things. The de­cap­i­ta­tion of Fo­ley and the depre­da­tions of the Is­lamic State are evil re­turned, evil that can be un­der­stood only as be­yond un­der­stand­ing. It needs to be elim­i­nated. More than Fo­ley was killed that day in the desert. So was the why.

Richard Co­hen is a writer with the Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group. He can be reached at co­henr@wash­post.com.

RICHARD CO­HEN

COLUM­NIST

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