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'Evil' Madoff -- if the shoe fits

With so much evil in the world, why are we so reluctant to use the term?


Not since the aftermath of 9/11 has the word "evil" been bandied about so much in the public media. Last week, while sentencing Bernard Madoff to 150 years in prison, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin brought the term back in a big way. Chin's characterization of Madoff's crimes as "extraordinarily evil" was so striking that it made headlines around the world. And, as usual whenever that loaded word is used, there were plenty of people who were offended by it.

Which makes me wonder: With so much evil in the world, why are we so reluctant to use the term?

Some critics thought that by calling Madoff evil, Chin was implicitly letting the rest of rotten, unsupervised Wall Street off the hook. To call Madoff evil, the argument went, was to make him uniquely aberrant, thereby giving us the illusion that condemning one man would solve a systematic problem.

In the early part of the decade, President George W. Bush caught a lot of grief for employing the word "evil" four times in his 2002 State of the Union address and five times in 2003. He was accused of using and abusing the term to justify the war on terror: To call our enemies evil -- especially in the phrase "axis of evil," with its World War II connotations -- was tantamount to taking reason out of the equation and wrapping our side in the guise of sanctity.

It's clear that the politics of calling bad guys evil are tricky. The gist of both these arguments is that to call someone evil is to run the risk of letting yourself and others off the proverbial hook. But the politics of finger-pointing aside, aren't there evil people and deeds in the world that need to be known for what they are?

St. Augustine argued that evil was less a unique malicious presence than it was the absence of good. Other conceptions of evil treat it as a distinct countervailing force to goodness. In this secular age, it's the theological roots of these concepts that make many people uneasy. Terms like evil evoke baroque images of the netherworld and sketchy-looking men with lascivious eyes, horns and pointy beards. Evil is the stuff of movies. Think Hannibal Lecter.

But 46 years ago in her book on the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt introduced the useful concept of the banality of evil. Arendt discredited the notion that people who do evil deeds are either sociopaths or demonstratively different than other people. She stripped evil of its theatricality and drama. Sometimes evil is perpetrated by average people whom no one would suspect.

I think the essentially reformist, everything-is-fixable nature of American culture makes us uneasy with the idea that anyone is beyond redemption. Sure, the faithful speak about evil and evildoers on Sundays, but in a nation that prides itself on second chances, there is a reluctance to write people off completely.

When the modern penitentiary was invented in the early 19th century, its creators envisioned it less as a place of punishment than of reformation. It's imposing architecture and regimentation were designed to teach discipline to victims of social disorder. Even now, in the era of three-strikes laws, some of us still hang on to the pretense that prison is about reform.

In this majority Christian nation, the notion of forgiveness as much as the reality of evil looms large. And while the Puritans and many fundamentalists have seen the devil everywhere, there is also a moral imperative in the New Testament not to judge.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." In Matthew, he says, "Do not judge, lest you be judged by others."

And let's not forget the ever-present struggle between moral judgment and democratic pluralism. The acceptance of pluralism is itself an implicit acknowledgment that differing moral persuasions can exist within one nation. This doesn't mean that we don't collectively decide and legislate what actions lie beyond the pale. One of the essential roles of government and civil society is to determine the boundaries of decency and indecency, moral and immoral, accepted and unacceptable. But it makes sense that in a society predicated on the idea of tolerance, evil is an accusation that is sparingly used.

I admire our collective reluctance to use the term, although I'm not sure that it doesn't sometimes make us less capable of dealing with evil head on. Alden Pyle, the well-meaning, dangerously naive protagonist in Graham Greene's "The Quiet American," comes to mind. So when somebody such as Judge Chen blurts out the word to describe a man who thrived for years on victimizing others, I not only think he called a spade a spade, he may have helped us identify the next bad guy who'll try to prey on us down the line.


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