February 7, 2002 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

Stop Rationalizing Evil

For a president that few consider an intellectual heavyweight, George W. Bush is emerging as a pretty good moral philosopher. Better, at least, than many of his critics.

Recall that within days of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, public intellectuals in America and abroad began rationalizing the events. They launched a dogged hunt for the "root causes" of Islamic rage: poverty, globalization and U.S. support for Israel, to name a few.

During his State of the Union address, the president called off the hunt. "What we have found in Afghanistan confirms that, far from ending there, our war against terror is only beginning."

And what have we learned? That the Islamic regime in Afghanistan was not only a breeding ground for terrorism, but also among the most violent, paranoid and perverted of any in the world. Women were executed without mercy for breaking dress codes. Afghan physicians -- and their patients who lived to tell about it -- have described horrific stories of mutilation and torture by Taliban police. As surgeon Mohammed Zaher Osman bluntly told a Western reporter: "They were animals."

We know, from former al-Qaeda members, that what happens in terrorist training camps has less to do with global politics than with a theological vow to endless aggression. We know, from textbooks used in radical Islamic schools, that children are taught a grammar of war and of hate. "Ahmed has a sword. He performs jihad with his sword," says a third-grade language primer. "Anyone who wants to do the will of God should start jihad … against the infidels."

And we know, from the recovered videotape of a gloating bin Laden, the bottomless depth of his heart of darkness. What U.S. policy could possibly explain a man's delight in the deaths of thousands of innocents?

Nevertheless, from the pages of the Nation to the floor of the United Nations, the rationalizing continues. The war on terror is equated with terrorism itself.

President Bush has dismissed the rationalizers, insisting that "evil is real, and it must be opposed." In this, he rejects moral agnosticism -- itself the rejection of any religious insight into the nature of human evil.

For centuries theologians and philosophers understood that conscience is the anvil of virtue and character. They took it for granted that God places his moral law in the heart, or conscience, of every person. Yet they were not naïve. Individuals can know what is right, yet deliberately embrace what is evil. And when wickedness is chosen often enough, the moral senses become dulled, hardened, rendered useless.

Thomas Aquinas once observed that the corruption of conscience occurs for many reasons, but none can be separated from the selfish choices of individuals. Unchecked, they produce monstrous egos, in this case unleashed by a perverted religion. Christian author C.S. Lewis once called this process the "ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of Hell."

If that doesn't describe the bin Laden home video, what does?

Ironically, it's not the nation's intellectual class, but a former owner of a baseball team who's making the most sense about the dark nature of Islamic terror. In virtually every speech on the topic, President Bush dishes out relentless realism about the al-Qaeda network. They are a "cult of evil," "bands of murderers," "heirs to fascism" and "men without conscience."

And, as the president warned in his State of the Union speech, they're looking for allies -- North Korea and Iraq, for example -- who will help them use weapons of mass destruction to turn their hatred into holocaust. Indeed, they consider it a religious duty.

That's why the president is right to make no distinction between rogue states that harbor terrorists and the terrorists themselves -- and to pledge U.S. intervention. "I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer," he said. "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

Those still on a quest for the "root causes" of Islamic extremism will fail to see the evil at their own doorsteps. Let them go on searching. But let the nation's military get on with its moral obligations to stop it.

 

Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org) and a commentator on religion for National Public Radio.

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Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire