Jewish World Review Oct. 22, 2001 / 5 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Good and evil in the New York Times -- TERRORISM is evil and fighting against terrorism is good. It is hard to think of a truer or more self-evident observation about last month's atrocities and their aftermath. But you wouldn't know that from the opinion pages of The New York Times, which have been advancing the idea that it is pointless -- even perilous -- to talk about good and evil in the wake of Sept. 11.

Consider this, from Sheryl Stolberg's Week in Review piece 12 days after the attacks:

"There are dangers inherent in a moral awakening. When Mr. Bush calls the terrorist attacks evil, many Americans . . . instinctively agree with him. But philosophers and theologians worry that, as the president casts the fight against global terrorism as a crusade of good against evil, Americans will come to feel not only morally alive, but morally superior. And from that, they say, may flow an abandonment of moral principles. . ."

Got that? Discriminating between good and evil leads to "an abandonment of moral principles" -- that is, to evil. Exactly which "philosophers and theologians" hold that view Stolberg doesn't say, but moral leaders from Moses to Martin Luther King would have rejected it. Of course it is possible to commit one evil in the course of combating another, but the suggestion that we ought not feel morally superior to terrorists who commit mass murder is simply bizarre. If the fight against global terrorism is not a "crusade of good against evil," what on earth is it? And why should we support it?

Worse than this warning against distinguishing between good and evil is Stephen Jay Gould's assertion on the Sept. 26 op-ed page that goodness is common and evil infrequent.

"In this moment of crisis," writes Gould, a renowned Harvard biologist, it is important to affirm the "essential truth" that "good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one" -- as at Ground Zero, which has now become "a vast web of bustling goodness, channeling uncountable deeds of kindnessfrom an entire planet." The horrors of history are caused not by a "high frequency of evil people," Gould says, but by the terrible destructiveness of "rare acts of evil."

It is true that there has been an outpouring of benevolence since Sept. 11; it is natural for members of a community to come together in a crisis. But it is not true that human nature is essentially good or that evil is rare. And it is the worst kind of wishful thinking to believe otherwise.

Decency and compassion may be conspicuous at the moment, but where were decency and compassion during the centuries of slavery, when men and women were reduced to chattel? Where were decency and compassion when the Nazis killed two-thirds of Europe's Jews with the approval of a vast legion of "willing executioners?" Where were decency and compassion when 800,000 Rwandans were butchered by their fellow citizens? When Bosnian women were herded into camps to be raped? When Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in her middle-class New York neighborhood as dozens of neighbors ignored her cries for help?

The unwelcome truth is that most people are not innately good and kind. Our willingness to commit or acquiesce in cruelty and meanness is considerable. Gould's belief in humanity's essential goodness is an act of blind faith -- touching, in a way, but harmful. For if people are naturally decent and moral, there is no urgent need to teach decency and morality. If "good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one," it isn't necessary for people to hone their character, to work at virtue and ethics as diligently as they might work at pitching or piano playing.

As a secular humanist, Gould has to believe in human nature: For him there is no higher authority. But those of us who believe in G-d and a transcendent moral code don't need Gould's rose-colored glasses. We are able to acknowledge humanity's moral weakness and capacity for evil without despairing. For we understand that even though goodness and kindness don't outweigh evil by thousands to one, each of us can become -- with effort -- a better and kinder person. Only in that way can the fight against evil in the world make any real progress.

But what is "evil" anyway? In an Oct. 15 column, Stanley Fish, a leading exponent of postmodern relativism, instructs us that "we have grounds enough for action" against the Taliban "without grasping for the empty rhetoric of universal absolutes" like "justice" or "evil." It is, Fish says, "inaccurate and unhelpful" to call the terrorists evil. After all, this is "an enemy who comes at us with a full roster of grievances, goals, and strategies," and to "reduce that enemy to 'evil' " is simply to confuse ourselves.

Not surprisingly, Fish endorses Reuters's ban on calling the Sept. 11 murderers "terrorists." He approvingly quotes the bromide that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

Could anything make the moral emptiness of relativism plainer? If hijacking airliners and smashing them into skyscrapers for the explicit purpose of incinerating thousands of innocent victims cannot be called evil without qualification, then nothing can. No doubt that is Fish's real point. And no doubt other academics for whom everything is relative would agree with him.

Which only goes to show that George Orwell was right: Some ideas are so preposterous that only an intellectual could believe them. Even when they appear in the New York Times.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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09/25/01: Speaking out against terror
09/21/01: What the terrorists saw
09/17/01: Calling evil by its name
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09/04/01: The real bigots
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12/05/00 The 'MCAS' teens give each other
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