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Book Review: Political Evil: What it is and How to Combat It? by Alan Wolfe
CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, USN, Reviewer, 4/1/2013

Published by Knopf, New York. 352 pages, 2011.

The massacre of children in Newtown, and recent bombings that have marred the Boston Marathon, coupled with America’s global effort to combat violent extremism and our history of confronting rogue regimes past and present, makes this book pondering evil generally and political evil specifically a needed part of our public discourse.

Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston College. His latest book, which was published in 2011 and went paperback in 2012 is an intellectually uncomfortable, yet a necessary discussion on political evil. Part one of his book helps the reader gain an understanding of what political evil is, and part two is dedicated to finding ways to combat it. As members of the United States Armed Forces, simplistic characterizations are not useful, and value judgments make identifying evil that more complex.

Wolfe defines political evil as “the wilful, malevolent, and gratuitous death, destruction, and suffering inflicted upon innocent people by the leaders of movements and states in their strategic efforts to achieve realizable objectives.” The book attempts to bring evil from “the heavens into the world of politics and policy,” this is the uncomfortable part of the book, which is the challenge of making atrocities intelligible. Wolfe makes a compelling case of how merging evil with politics, allow for the mass mechanization of murder. The essence of the book is that political evil can be assessed because it occurs on the ground. He uses as one of his many examples HAMAS and Hizbullah, when stripped from its religious narratives and noise, reveals their calculating concern for the regional politics of the Middle East. Among the varieties of political evil discussed, defined, and highlighted are: ethnic cleansing (displacing people through mayhem), genocide (targeting people for extermination based on race or religion), and counterevil (responding in ways not proportional to an evil committed against us). The term genocide and ethnic cleansing are used interchangeably that clarity had been blurred and words matter.

The book distinguishes between “Everyday Evil,” like the Columbine shooters, or the D.C. Beltway shooter John Allen Muhammad and “Outsized Evil,” of the likes of Hitler and Stalin. You will immerse yourself on philosophers who have pondered evil from Saint Augustine’s Confessions, which is the trials of one man and contains such vignettes as the pear tree, that is why does a pear taste better when it is stolen? Augustine also challenged the notion of Manichaeism (Good versus Evil) and God’s creation. Black and white, good and evil, undermines the concept that people are responsible for their own acts, and undermines notions of free will. Such bipolar judgments will always be an enemy of complexity. Hannah Arendt would introduce the term “Banality of Evil,” in her book about Adolf Eichmann, she reduces the mass murderer of thousands of Jews in World War II to a bureaucrat of mass murder. The book contains excellent treatments in psychologizing evil, from the famous Milgram Experiments, in which subjects were placed in situations in which they would administer gradual levels of what would finally become lethal (mock) electric shocks. There is also the Zimbardo Experiment in which a prison was set up and how authority and being subject to authority leads normal people to descend into sadistic behavior, with some resisting the urge.

Part two contains many ideas, and I wish to focus on terrorism and the author’s theory of sociocide. That is terrorism aims at the social contract that enable people to live in peace and under rule of law. Terrorist want their self-declared enemies to act violently and that terrorist leader’s pay close attention to the character of a society. Wolfe also has an excellent discussion on the problems of aggregation that is lumping a heinous act on a society, race, religion, or ethnic group and the need for disaggregation with strategies to disaggregate such as calming, downsizing, and contrasting to ensure that a rash state response does not play into the hands of the terrorists. This is a refreshingly complex volume and should be of interest to anyone interested in the dark aspects of the human condition.

Editor’s Note: CDR Aboul-Enein is author of two books on the Middle East. He teaches part-time at the National Defense University and National Intelligence University. CDR Aboul-Enein wishes to thank the National Defense University Library for providing the book and a quiet place to write this review.