I never liked it when George W. Bush used the term “evildoers” to describe al-Qaida and other terrorists. A lot of other people objected as well, but for different reasons.
I didn’t like the term because it always sounded to me like he was saying “evil Dewar’s,” as in the blended Scotch. (This always made some of Bush’s statements chuckle-worthy — “We will not rest until we find the evil Dewar’s!”) I prefer single malts, but “evil” always seemed unduly harsh.
The more common objection to “evildoers” was that it was, variously, simplistic, Manichean, imperialistic, cartoonish, etc.
“Perhaps without even realizing it,” Peter Roff, then with UPI, wrote in October 2001, “the president is using language that recalls a simpler time when good and evil seemed more easy to identify — a time when issues, television programs and movies were more black and white, not colored by subtle hues of meaning.”
A few years later, as the memory of 9/11 faded and the animosity toward Bush grew, the criticism became more biting. But the substance was basically the same. Sophisticated people don’t talk about “evil,” save perhaps when it comes to America’s legacy of racism, homophobia, capitalistic greed and the other usual targets of American self-loathing.
For most of the Obama years, talk of evil was largely banished from mainstream discourse. An attitude of “goodbye to all that” prevailed, as the war on terror was rhetorically and legally disassembled and the spare parts put toward building a law-enforcement operation. War was euphemized into “overseas contingency operations” and “kinetic military action.”
There was still bloodshed, but the language was often bloodless. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a protege of al-Qaida guru Anwar al-Awlaki, shouted “Allahu Akbar!” as he killed his colleagues at Fort Hood. The military called the incident “workplace violence.”
But sanitizing the language only works so long as people aren’t paying too much attention. That’s why the Islamic State is so inconvenient to those who hate the word “evil.”
Last week, after the group released a video showing American journalist James Foley getting his head cut off, the administration’s rhetoric changed dramatically. The president called the Islamic State a “cancer” that had to be eradicated. Secretary of State John Kerry referred to it as the “face of ... evil.”
Although most people across the ideological spectrum see no problem with calling the Islamic State evil, the change in rhetoric elicited a predictable knee-jerk response. Political scientist Michael Boyle hears an “eerie echo” of Bush’s “evildoers” talk.
“Indeed,” he wrote in the New York Times, “condemning the black-clad, masked militants as purely ‘evil’ is seductive, for it conveys a moral clarity and separates ourselves and our tactics from the enemy and theirs.”
James Dawes, the director of the Program in Human Rights and Humanitarianism at Macalester College, agreed in a piece for CNN.com. Using the word “evil,” he wrote, “stops us from thinking.”
No, it doesn’t. But perhaps a reflexive and dogmatic fear of the word “evil” hinders thinking?
For instance, Boyle suggests that because the Islamic State controls lots of territory and is “administering social services,” it “operates less like a revolutionary terrorist movement that wants to overturn the entire political order in the Middle East than a successful insurgent group that wants a seat at that table.”
Behold the clarity of thought that comes with jettisoning moralistic language! Never mind that the Islamic State says it seeks a global caliphate with its flag over the White House. Who cares that it is administering social services? Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot did, too. That’s what revolutionary groups do when they grab enough territory.
There’s a more fundamental question: Is it true? Is the Islamic State evil?
As a matter of objective moral fact, the answer seems obvious. But also under any more subjective version of multiculturalism, pluralism or moral relativism shy of nihilism, “evil” seems a pretty accurate description for an organization that is not only intolerant toward gays, Christians, atheists, moderate Muslims, Jews, women, et al. but also stones, beheads and enslaves them.
Who are you saving the word for if “evil” is too harsh for the Islamic State? More to the point, since when is telling the truth evidence you’ve stopped thinking?
Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a columnist for Tribune Media.