How Should We Respond to Evil?

Rabbi Ben Tzion Gold, the Holocaust survivor who long served as Hillel director at Harvard, after his retirement gave an elegiac talk about his life.

At the close of his talk, a woman in the audience invited him to join her in mocking President Bush for calling the perpetrators of the attacks on September 11 as “evil.”

Rabbi Gold asked her if she thought the word “evil” inappropriate.

She declared, “Of course.”

He replied, “Then I am sorry for you.”

Rabbi Gold died this April. May remembering him bless us.

Some thinkers made a judgment similar to Rabbi Gold’s about the June 28 mass murder at the airport in Istanbul; it was an act of evil.  Steven Paulikas, writing in the New York Times philosophy series, “The Stone,” questioned the use of the word “evil.”

Paulikas’ main objection focuses on the consequences of the term.  If we define something as “evil,” then it seems to follow that we ought to destroy it.  However, Paulikas observes, “We have ample evidence that our solutions to evil after Sept. 11 were unsuccessful. If the objective of our military intervention in the Middle East was to eradicate points on the axis of evil, our assertion of the continued presence of evil in the region points to a grand failure.”

The United States has, as Paulikas observes, made ongoing war on the axis of evil, and yet we still feel threatened by terrorists.  Terrorists kill innocent people in airports and nightclubs, but our efforts to destroy terrorists kill vastly larger numbers of people, many of whom are not terrorists at all.

Paulikas also presents a philosophic objection to the effort to destroy evil.  He cites Paul Ricoeur’s idea that evil has no substance. The idea seems similar to Rambam’s definition of evil as an absence (Guide 3:10).  In that vein, Paulikas asks, , “How do you obliterate something that has no substance?”  Perhaps what we see as evil is “simply opposed to our interests.”

According to Paulikas, rather than trying to destroy evil, we should respond to suffering with “wisdom,” defined as “an unwavering commitment to relieve and prevent suffering.”

I wonder how he would make this “wisdom” operational.  Would we put a team of counsellors in every soft target? Every airport, kindergarten, or movie theater could have an emergency room physician, a trauma nurse, and an empathic therapist on call, ready to alleviate suffering as soon as the shooting stops . . . or even before it stops.

On second thought, Paulikas does anticipate using violence to “alleviate suffering.”  I suppose that means approximately that we may use violence to stop the perpetrators, but not go after their home base or their ideological supporters.  During an operation, I suspect, Paulikas would allow our forces to shoot the perpetrators, because that can help potential victims escape.  At other times, he seems to think we should do no harm.  The perpetrators, he believes, do not deserve the title “evil.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his new book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, disagrees:  “I mean evil of the kind that we all recognize as such.  Killing the weak, the innocent, the very young and old is evil. Indiscriminate murder by terrorist attack or suicide bombing is evil.  Murdering people because of their religion or race is evil.”

Rabbi Sacks does not succumb to relativism.  “There are acts so alien to our concept of humanity that they cannot be justified on the grounds that they were a means to a great, noble or holy end.”

We must have the courage to oppose evil, and also have the wisdom not to justify everything in our haste to destroy evil.  In opposing evil we must not fall into the trap of permitting for our forces the same crimes that we recognize as evil when done by our enemies.  We must not kill non-combatants for living in the same postal zone as terrorists.

Nietzsche warns, “Whoever would fight with monsters must beware lest he become a monster.”

But there really are monsters out there.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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