Alan J. Lipman

February 2, 2002

Evil Doers and Evil People

A new set of phrases has become part of our culture in the wake of September 11th. The phrases are most often stated in terms of Al Queda being "evil doers". At other times, President Bush has referred to them as "evil people" and recently, used bacteriological metaphors to characterize our enemy, stating that it is necessary to eliminate these bacteria that menace us.

The acts of September 11th provoke horror and outrage, as they should.  However, the rage that we experience at the loss of the innocent, and the fear that such violence may strike ourselves and our loved ones can lead us, in our fury and anxiety, to race to sweeping conclusions about human beings and human nature that are not without consequence for our future safety and well-being.

Justifiable outrage can lead to a rhetorical slide, and this slide is not without consequence, as it creates a gradually evolving context and precedent for future behavior.  Our conclusions about the nature of such violent behavior create a kind of testing of the waters for how we, as a nation, will define those who do wrong against us. When spoken frequently enough, these phrases come to take on a form of consensual truth, an "of course" response that brooks no debate.

Are there, in fact, "evil people?" The notion of "evil doers" is, I think, unarguable, connoting actions, such as the slaughter of those who have committed no harm to their murderers, which, in most contexts, are manifestly wrong; brutal, undeserved, unprovoked--evil. However, we need to take the time--in the face of our justified rage, sadness, even despair--to examine the distinction between "evil doers" and "evil persons." 

"Evil person" is a status, suggesting no hope of change, an intrinsic quality that makes the person irredeemably different from us, immune to the influence of ideas that are not evil (for there are evil ideas), and finally, in their basic and essential evil nature, inhuman.   It hardly needs to be pointed out that this very same mentality, possessed by the hijackers who perpetrated the evil deeds of September 11th, permitted killings that, with the unreconstructed passion of the devotee to the idea of an irredeemably evil other, they visited upon us.

Evil acts should be recognized and they should be punished.  However, explanation is not the equivalent of retribution, and they are not mutually exclusive.  If we classify persons, rather than actions, as evil, we put them, and the many who we would similarly classify, and who have not yet acted), beyond the possibility of constructive change. In so doing, we perpetuate the very evil actions that we seek to eliminate.  We must punish the "evil doers", while, with the decency, strength, knowledge and persistence that our nation can so frequently display, bring the many better ideas and solutions that we possess to those who are now, with demonstrated and tragic consequence, currently animated by evil ones.