Acton Commentary

Waking Up to Evil


For most Americans, the morning of September 11 began just like every other day. We dragged ourselves out of bed, poured ourselves a cup of coffee, and slowly began to settle into our daily morning routines. But at 8:48 am, Americans were forced to wake up. The unbelievable images of hijacked airliners tearing into the World Trade Center, reducing New York City’s majestic Twin Towers to smoldering piles of ash and rubble, jolted millions of Americans into consciousness. That fateful morning, millions of Americans literally woke up to evil.

That the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were acts of evil cannot be denied. Anyone who has seen the television footage of United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the south tower (and at this point it is hard to believe that there is anyone in the world who has not seen it) knows this in his heart. What other word can possibly describe what the members of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization did to the sixty innocent people aboard that plane, or to the thousands of innocent people working at their desks when the planes hurtled into the World Trade Center? And what other word could possibly describe their twisted desire for the entire world to witness their monstrous act? Ingeniously (yes, genious can be used for evil ends) spacing the attacks on the Twin Towers seventeen minutes apart, they knew that every television camera in New York City would capture the second attack on film.

From his steely address to the nation and to his to his formal announcement of Operation Enduring Freedom, President Bush consistently has pointed out that America has experienced evil firsthand. And in print, on radio, and on television, outraged American citizens have voiced fundamental agreement with their president: The murder of thousands of innocent people was a genuine act of evil.

Gone is the therapeutic language of disease, disorder, and dependency that has dominated America’s moral landscape for so long. Elected officials from Hillary Clinton to Trent Lott, refuse to psychologize away the terrorists’ actions by speaking of the "cycle of violence" or "syndromes" in the Middle East. Nor, for that matter, are Americans reverting to the morally bankrupt language of cultural relativism to explain the terrorists’ horrific attack on America. To be sure, Ivy League schools such as Yale have scrambled to hold "conversations" about the sociological "root causes" of terrorism in the Middle East. And a number of public intellectuals, such as Tikkun magazine editor Michael Lerner, have been quick to point out that terrorist attacks are, in part, the result of the globalization process "and its attendant inequalities of wealth." But American citizens themselves, in interview after interview, repeatedly acknowledge that there is no rational "explanation" for these horrific events.

Having witnessed these terrorist events, Americans instinctively know that no one can really make sense of evil; no one can really believe that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist cells were simply expressing different "values" than ours. The actions of bin Laden and his network powerfully reminded Americans that evil is something absurd-something that should not exist but somehow does. Truth be told, the unprecedented attack on America has managed to do what social commentators from Arthur Schlessinger to William Bennett have feared could not be done: reawaken many Americans to the basic moral structure of the universe, to the all-too-real world of good and evil.

By carrying out this vicious act these terrorists may very well have sealed their fate. Unlike psychological or sociological pathologies, there is no therapeutic "cure" for evil. American citizens know in their hearts that evil is impervious to Prozac and twelve-step programs. And despite pacifists’ claim to the contrary, the perversity of evil is also impervious to the "rational" techniques of "conflict resolution." Evil, rather, must be opposed. Evil must be rooted out. With the reawakening of millions of Americans to the inescapable reality of evil, we are now confronted with the grave moral responsibility of responding to it.