Skip to main content

Secondary navigation:

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Author Meets Critics: Political Evil by Alan Wolfe

Event Recap

Evil does in fact exist in the world today, argues Boisi Center director Alan Wolfe in his newest book, but too many of us confuse and conflate its different varieties, and as a result we make poor decisions about when, where and how we should act to combat it. Political Evil: What It is and How to Combat It (Knopf, 2011) aims to clarify the issue and analyze its implications for American foreign policy. On September 21 the Boisi Center hosted a vigorous conversation about the book’s central themes with James Traub and Martha Minow, two distinguished authorities on international relations and conflict resolution.

Wolfe opened the discussion with a summary of his key arguments. When considering the need for military intervention around the world, he emphasized, we must first understand which kind of evil is operative in the conflict. “Political evil” is strategic in nature, focused on realizable objectives, and can therefore be opposed and redirected through strategic negotiations and/or the use of force. Not all evil is amenable to political resolution, however: the “radical evil” of dictators like Hitler and Stalin is employed in pursuit of unrealizable and abstract goals (such as the extermination of a race or class), while the “everyday evil” of serial killers or isolated random shooters have no political relevance at all. Still, Wolfe said, four of the central problems we now face—terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide and “counter-evil” (i.e., torture and other evil acts employed by states to combat evil)—are forms of political evil with specific means and ends that call for specific responses.

New York Times Magazine contributor and Foreign Policy columnist James Traub focused his comments on the conflict in Darfur, which Wolfe argued the West was too hasty to call “genocide.” On the ground, Traub said, the Darfur conflict clearly combined civil war and genocide, and a purely local and political response would have been insufficient to stop the massacres. Traub agreed that the world’s response to Darfur has been a failure, but not because of the moral hyperbole Wolfe criticized. Rather, the existing lack of international support for large-scale military intervention was bolstered by rhetoric from Sudan’s African neighbors that cast the conflict as nothing more than a regional political dispute.

Martha Minow, Dean of Harvard Law School and author of several books on post-conflict reconciliation, applauded Wolfe’s analysis of political evil but questioned how, in the midst of an unfolding conflict, we can know when atrocities are committed for “political” instead of “radical” ends. Imperfect information makes the proper response difficult to discern, she said. Furthermore, if we want to educate and inspire the American public to act to end massacres like those in Darfur, we must employ precisely the sort of strong moral language that Wolfe deplores.

Following Wolfe’s brief response to each of the other panelists, the packed audience leapt into the conversation with a number of incisive comments and questions about humanitarian intervention, the continuing perils of colonialism and empire, and above all, the many ways we talk about evil in the world today.