Evil as a Manageable Problem

President Obama’s comments at a press conference in Estonia has attracted quite a bit of heat. The President stated:

“we know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem.”

As one talking head proclaimed:

“The president needs to have the same type of resolve that I think we as individuals have when we see and read the truth about what the Islamic State desires, which is a world way beyond Iraq and Syria, and it must be destroyed, each and every one of them needs to be killed and stopped.”

The critique, predictably, has a certain Manichaean feel: ISIL is evil and evil must be destroyed. And with that, the drums of war beat once again.

I have little doubt that ISIL is evil (and yes, I believe in evil) and that some (perhaps all) members of ISIL would be pleased to kill US citizens (the recent beheading videos leave little doubt). But when something is cast as evil and we commit to doing whatever is necessary to destroy it, we run into some obvious problems. Even if evil can be personified in “Jihadi John,” (the nickname given to the ISIL executioner, veiled in black, with a British accent), it cannot be reduced to a single person or a collection of people who can be killed (“each and every one”). Here, I think Hannah Arendt was closer to the truth when she used a different metaphor: “Evil …can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface.” Given the pervasiveness of evil, a war on evil could prove open ended (kind of like a war on drugs, a war on crime, a war on terror…). Such wars are used repeatedly to expand the role of the state, justify assaults on liberty, and turn a blind eye to the substantial collateral damage.

In this context, the prudent person needs to evaluate the magnitude of the threat and then conduct something of a cost-benefit analysis. What is the most cost-effective means of reducing the capacity of those intent on evil from constituting a serious threat? How can we transform a given threat into “a manageable problem”? Perhaps this analysis will reveal that we don’t need to “follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice,” as Vice President Biden declared Wednesday in New Hampshire?

There are a lot of evil people in the world. Some we kill. Some we incarcerate. Some we incapacitate. Some we rehabilitate. Some we bribe. Some we ignore. Often we pragmatically try a combination of strategies and the combination evolves over time as our understanding grows or circumstances change. Unfortunately, this is an analysis that is particularly difficult to conduct two months before the midterm elections, when a lot of unserious people and neocons are competing for face time in the media.

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