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Radical evil sets the threshold of victory so high that we risk contamination by confronting it on its own terms. Terrorists tempt us to torture them, by striking against innocent noncombatants out of the shadows. The present debate over torture is a black cloud as big as a man’s hand announcing a storm to come. How do we arrogate unto ourselves the right to inflict death and extreme pain upon innocents¯leave aside not-so-innocent terrorists¯without corrupting ourselves? The insidious character of radical evil seeks to contaminate us through our own response. Ordinary evil kills for profit or rapes for pleasure. Radical evil rapes and kills so that terror and horror will blot out the memory of the good and leave behind only the capacity for more evil.

Radical evil seeks to destroy the good out of envy; if we cannot envision the Good, we must stand dumb and uncomprehending before radical evil. And no secular philosophy can explain the Good; no mainstream current of modern philosophy even tries. All the less can secular philosophy explain radical evil. The erosion of the West’s theological understanding of good and evil since the Second World War and the Cold War leaves us vulnerable to radical evil. It is in this context that the present debate over torture should be situated.

To confront radical evil on its own terms¯and that cannot always be avoided¯carries the risk of contagion. Terrorists who kill large numbers of noncombatants in order to tear apart the social fabric through “terror and horror” ( Schrecken und Entsetzen , as Goebbels liked to cite Luther) embody such evil. They dare us to respond in kind, for example, by attacking the civilian populations that host terrorists, in which they lurk and by employing “enhanced interrogation,” or torture, on a large scale in operations against them. Their strategic objective is to make the conduct of war too horrible for the West to endure. On past occasions, including the Algerian War and the Vietnam War, they succeeded.

We should remember that to defeat radical evil during the Second World War, we bombed civilian districts of large cities, causing not only millions of death but also dreadful physical suffering upon noncombatants compared to which waterboarding seems trivial. Anyone who doubts this should read the eyewitness accounts from Hiroshima. Nothing is more painful than death by burning, and many of the victims did not die quickly. Ivan Karamazov accused God for making children suffer; by what right do we make children suffer? Nuclear bombardment of Japanese cities was justified by military logic, as the alternative was an invasion that would have cost many times more civilian lives, as well as the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. The same argument applies to the non-nuclear but equally destructive bombardment of German cities. Nonetheless the suffering involved was beyond the frontier of horror.

Horrible methods of war were morally justified because the Axis powers practiced an extreme of evil not previously observed in human history. Not only did the Nazis murder, but they deliberately made as many Germans as possible complicit in these murders. Surveying recent histories of Germany during the Second World War, the Atlantic ‘s literary editor Benjamin Schwarz notes that “although knowledge of the Final Solution prompted action by only a heroic few, that knowledge¯and Germans’ accompanying quiescence¯nevertheless loomed large in the mind, and in many cases the soul, of the nation. This was deliberate on the part of the regime . . . By establishing the murder of the Jews as an open secret¯open enough that awareness of it pervaded society but secret enough that it couldn’t be protested or even openly discussed¯the Nazis devilishly nudged the nation into complicity, and further bound the population to its leaders.”

The Nazi regime set out to destroy God’s people, the Jews, and bragged about it in order to imprint evil upon Germany’s consciousness. “By 1943 at the latest . . . the war was lost for Germany. Yet for nearly two more years the Germans would continue the struggle,” Schwarz observes. He quotes a grim Goebbels broadcast of 1943: “As for us, we’ve burned our bridges behind us . . . We will either go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or the greatest criminals.” There was nothing mediocre about it. If Germany lost the war, the Nazi leadership envisioned a downfall so horrible that its memory would poison civilization forever. This is as close to radical evil as humankind has come. Radical evil has no object but to destroy the good, that is, to propagate evil for its own sake. At every cost, this evil had to be defeated.

During the Cold War, for that matter, the United States twice went to the brink of nuclear war, first by blockading Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis, and second by installing the medium-range Pershing Missiles in Germany in 1982, a sort of Cuban missile crisis in reverse. The Soviet Union seriously considered war as an alternative to accepting an irreversible strategic setback on the central front, as CIA analyst Benjamin Fischer reports in an unclassified monograph. To defeat Communism, the United States risked horrors beyond anything the world yet has seen¯and by doing so freed the world from a great evil.

In the Second World War and the Cold War war, Americans could endure the actual or prospective horrors of war because they understood in theological terms that they were at war with radical evil. America presented its war aims in terms of a civil religion generally Christian in outlook, but that also sanctified democratic institutions. This civic religion persisted into the Cold War as an instrument of American strategic aims. Americans saw the Second World War as a contest of good against evil, and thus were inoculated against the effect of Schrecken und Entsetzen . Goebbels’ Wagnerian theater of cruelty did not bring down the West along with Germany, because America, at least, understood its war policy as a Christian response to radical evil.

Secular society, by contrast, has an inherent vulnerability to radical evil, which it has no means to understand. Secular philosophy cannot produce an ethics; much less can it account for radical evil. Marx’s economic man may pillage and Freud’s libidinous man may rape, but they do so for the sake of loot and pleasure. Evil that destroys for the sake of destruction, out of envy of the Good, lies outside the horizon of secular thought. Secular thinkers stand dumb and uncomprehending before Mephistopheles, who told Faust, “I am the spirit that always negates, and rightly so, because everything that comes to be is worthy of its own destruction . . . I am a part of that part which in the beginning was everything/A part of darkness that gave birth to light; the proud light/that now contests Mother Night’s old rank and space.”

It is instructive to consider what happens when a Christian country fights radical evil on ground chosen by evil, in the absence of popular understanding of what the enemy represents. That was the case during the Vietnam War, when many Americans refused to believe that Vietnamese Communism embodied radical evil. Ubiquitous images of civilian casualties horrified Americans, especially young people who had no memory of the Second World War. A large minority of Americans came to believe that America, rather than Communist aggression, was the source of evil. Schrecken und entsetzen fueled a peace movement that undermined the American civic religion that had served so well during the Second World War and the early phases of the Cold War. The trouble was not that America lost the war¯on the contrary, America won the war on the ground¯but that the methods required to win against radical evil (bombing that caused extensive civilian death, assassinations of Communist cadre) horrified Americans.

The professional consensus as well as the historical record shows that torture works quite well against terrorist cells. “Enhanced interrogation” helped suppress attacks on American forces in Iraq. It also destroyed the FLN in Algeria. The French army ‘s ruthless methods (torture, use of counter-terror auxiliaries, aerial bombardment of pro-rebel villages, forced concentration of rural populations) had suppressed the rebellion by 1959, but popular support for the war had collapsed. As in Vietnam, the FLN terrorists lost the war on the ground, but by forcing France to engage on their terms, succeeded in demoralizing the French people.

America was vulnerable to terror and horror during the Vietnam War, when its government failed to persuade the public that its adversary embodied an evil so great as to justify the use of terrible countermeasures. America is even more vulnerable today, when its government cannot even identify who and what the enemy might be. President Obama insists that America is not at war with Islam, but it surely is at war with an interpretation of Islam shared by tens and possibly hundreds of millions of people. By falsely representing the terrorists as an unrepresentative minority in the Muslim world, Western governments have left their people vulnerable to a profoundly demoralizing shock.

Consider this scenario: Suppose that a terrorist organization were to obtain a nuclear weapon from Pakistan or Iran, and used such a weapon to inflict a few hundred thousand casualties on an American city. America well might retaliate by bombarding the guilty country with nuclear weapons, causing millions of casualties. I do not believe the Islamists would hesitate for a moment to sacrifice ten or twenty million Muslims, that is, three to six percent of the world Muslim population, if it increased the likelihood of victory over the West. The horror that such an exchange would provoke might have devastating effects on Western morale and overwhelm the West with horror. The result could be Vietnam writ huge.

The scandal over torture is the perverse result of the previous administration’s exercise in nation-building, that is, an attempt to bring the benefits of democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan. When Justice Department lawyers write memos to set ground rules for “enhanced interrogation,” something has gone woefully wrong. In the case of Iraq, the American military got up to its neck in the septic-tank of Iraqi civil society without the means to engage it. Apart from first-generation immigrants, few Americans speak Arabic, let alone Persian or Pashtun. Iraq’s welter of resistant organizations was entirely opaque to American intelligence, which proposed to beat the required information out of a large pool of Iraqi prisoner. In retrospect it seems delusional to believe that the United States could shape a civil society without even the ability to communicate with it.

Torture is an effective interrogation technique, but there are far more effective means of obtaining information, for example, persuading even a tiny minority of enemy personnel to defect. American intelligence never got a single important break through “enhanced interrogation” during the Cold War. Senior officials of the Soviet Empire, though, crossed the line of their own free will because they had ceased to believe in their own cause. America conducted a propaganda war against Communism that influenced enough Soviet officials to make a difference. As President, Ronald Reagan was psychological warrior-in-chief. But American intelligence has its hands tied in psychological warfare against Islamist terrorists, for the official position of the American government is to propitiate mainstream Islam. The name “Global War on Terror” arrays American power against a tactic, rather than the doctrine that motivates the doctrine. Despite the occasional official reference to Islamofascism or similar names for militant Islam, Washington and its allies avoided propaganda against the motivating doctrine. There is simply too big a gray area between the “extremist” views of terrorists and the Islamic mainstream.

As Fr. Khalid Samir S.J. says in his book 111 Questions About Islam , “Many Westerners fear Islam as a ‘religion of violence’. Muslims often call simultaneously for tolerance and understanding as well as for violence and aggression. In fact, both options are present in the Qur’an and the sunna . These are two legitimate manners¯two distinct ways to interpret, to understand, and to live Islam. It is up to the individual Muslim to decide what he wants Islam to be.” It is not that Islam is necessarily violent, but rather that nothing in mainstream Islam prohibits a violent interpretation. Psychological and ideological warfare against extreme Islamism cannot avoid outraging the Islamic mainstream, as Pope Benedict XVI learned when he offered the most cautious sort of criticism of Islamist violence at Regensburg in 2006.

No such constraints inhibited America’s efforts during the Cold War, when American psychological warfare followed the precedent of the Second World War. President Ronald Reagan denounced Communism as an “evil empire” and used every opportunity to contrast Western freedom with Soviet oppression. Washington (and Margaret Thatcher’s London) worked closely with Pope John Paul II to support religiously-informed resistance to Communism. In Danzig as well as Leipzig, faith-based resistance to Communism was of great importance in the ultimate fall of the Soviet Empire. It is useful to contrast the Western response to Pope John Paul II’s resistance to the Soviet Empire, and Pope Benedict XVI’s attack on Islamist violence at Regensburg. With Reagan and Thatcher in office, John Paul II was an inspiration to the secular leadership of the West. By contrast, Benedict XVI was something of an embarrassment.

By contrast, Washington’s policy under the previous as well as the present administration is to present Islam in a positive light. President Obama’s emphasis on a positive attitude toward Islam does not differ in substance from the attitude of the Bush administration, despite the latter’s occasional references to “Islamo-fascists.” Instead of soliciting defectors from Islamist organizations by attacking their premises and their morality, American forces used strong-arm techniques to compel their members to provide information. It is a cure that controls the disease, but eventually kills the patient, unless the patient is inoculated against its deadly side-effects.

In its delusional pursuit of nation-building under an Islamic “religion of peace,” the Bush administration gave short shrift to the pope’s critique of Islam’s tendencies toward violence, but found itself compelled to justify the foulest sort of violence on the ground. Given the occupation of a country whose culture and concerns were incomprehensible to Americans, the use of “enhanced interrogation” was inevitable on a scale so broad that official guidelines were required to regulated it.

Nearly two hundred thousand Americans, military and civilian personnel, were exposed to Iraqi terrorist organizations that routinely employed suicide bombings in order to kill Americans and their supporters. Some of these organizations were supported by Iran, which employed waves of children as human minesweepers in its war with Iraq. These atrocities were motivated by a religion that permits a peaceful interpretation, but cannot refute the cruelest and most violent interpretation. America simply is in no position to expose large numbers of its military and civilian personnel to this sort of horror. Instead we should attempt to quarantine such cultures and expose our own people to them as little as possible. In other words, we should intervene in the Islamic world where urgent American security interests are at stake, but to the minimum extent possible, and with no commitment to determine the civil outcome. We must leave the Muslim world to its own destiny rather than to attempt to engineer a happy ending. And unless Western leaders, religious as well as civic, help their followers to understand the Islamic manifestation of radical evil, the West will continue to be vulnerable.

This leaves one hypothetical issue about torture as such: What should American security forces do if they were to capture a terrorist in the possession of information about an imminent attack? Such instances are extremely rare, if indeed they ever occur, and if there were to be such instances, circumstances in each case would be unique. Circumstances might conceivably arise in which blowtorch and pliers might save large numbers of innocent lives, but were they to arise, they could not possibly be anticipated by law or executive order. Torture must remain a crime; the Presidential power to pardon is available as a remedy, as former President Clinton has suggested, in the unlikely event that such action could not be avoided.

David P. Goldman is associate editor of First Things .

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