Wolfe, Alan. Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It.

Author:Friedman, Barry D.
Position:Book review

Wolfe, Alan. Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. vii + 339 pages. Cloth, $27.95.

Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston College and contributing editor of The New Republic magazine, evaluates "political evil"--i.e., genocide, ethnic cleansing, and terrorism. He argues that many governments misinterpret forms of "political evil"--e.g., incorrectly identifying cases of ethnic cleansing as genocide which causes those governments to respond ineptly to such situations. Wolfe asserts that the governments of Israel and the United States misunderstand the practitioners of terrorism and, thus, respond with unrestrained violence that contributes to the terrorist leaders' effectiveness in recruiting adherents.

One of the catalysts for Western leaders who are Christians to overreact to "political evil," Wolfe states, is a conception of evil as an object that has its own identity. Wolfe traces this notion to "a third-century Persian prophet named Mani, who viewed the world as a constant struggle between the forces of good and those of evil" (p. 50). The Christian theologian St. Augustine, a fifth-century bishop of Hippo in Roman Africa, became intrigued by Mani's idea, studied it exhaustively, and finally repudiated it as heretical.

To Wolfe, President George W. Bush's characterization of terrorism as a manifestation of evil that stands alongside and threatens good is incongruous, given Bush's self-professed, born-again Christian faith. "Bush drew so easily upon the language of evil because he was one of the most religious of America's presidents" (p. 83). However, in focusing on evil as a separate force, Bush ultimately embraced Mani rather than Jesus. Wolfe contends that "political evil" is not an independent force of nature; rather, it is an impulse in human beings that may motivate them to inflict harm on others to accomplish political objectives: "... [T]errorism is a form of political evil rather than an embodiment of evil per se" (p. 147). Therefore, leaders of democratic nations should respond to "political evil" with political solutions, rather than with calls for a crusade against evil.

Treating "political evil" as an entity in its own right leads to rhetoric that equates Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, and Osama bin Laden with each other. Logically, as the rhetoric continues, any response to "political evil" that is less than furious and bloodthirsty...

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