Moral Clarity After 9/11

by Susan Neiman

Susan Neiman is director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany. Her books include Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy.

This article is excerpted from Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealist, just published by Harcourt. Used by permission. This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 20, 2008 pp. 28-30. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted Brock.


Susan Neiman uses father Abraham as a model for focusing attention on action rather than person.  Have the courage to judge actions, rather than the presumption to judge the individual.  Leave it to the Lord to judge the agent.

Put yourself, if you can, in his footsteps. You have long laid your life in the hands of the Lord. Told to leave the land of your fathers forever, you pack your bags and go forth. Told to cut off your foreskin and those of your servants, you see to it the same day. Your willingness to obey strange and painful commands without question is what makes you a man of faith.

And now the voice you have followed for a quarter of a century tells you he plans to destroy the city of Sodom. What makes you speak up? It can't be piety or reverence or devotion; those are all the things that drove you to obey the Lord without a murmur, much less a protest. Nor is he demanding anything of you at all: you are simply being informed in advance of an event in which no role for you is foreseen. You can be a distant witness and keep your hands clean. When God revealed his homicidal intentions to Noah, Noah nodded and built a boat. (One rabbinical source makes this the reason he's chiefly remembered in kindergartens, while Abraham's intervention merited glory.) What led the patriarch to risk everything to remind his sovereign lawgiver that his plan is manifestly unjust?

Whatever it is, it isn't religion, for religion is everything else that he did. Abraham's credentials as a knight of faith are beyond reproach, but they aren't the source of his sense of good and evil. That sense may inform his faith, but it is prior to it. Most people lose heart in the face of authority. They yield to priestly orders to shun excommunicated families, crusaders' instructions to behead infidels. Nor need the authority be expressly religious. White coats, officious manners, and the little word Yale was all it took to make 65 percent of those tested in Stanley Milgram's famous experiment push buttons they thought were shocking other people unconscious. Where does Abraham get the nerve to challenge the greatest, most sacred Authority of all?

No attempt to think ourselves into Abraham's world can be very successful, but even the most limited success at it should undermine the view that we get our moral concepts from religion. The view cuts across religious and political commitments, and it persists although the Bible itself says it ain't necessarily so. Running for president, both Pat Robertson and Joe Lieberman quoted, more or less accurately, George Washington's claim that "reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." Would everything be permitted if God did not exist? Many have swallowed the idea without ever defending it.

Nowhere is this assumption more alive than when talk turns to evil, as it's done so often since September 11, 2001. Public discourse was the first thing al-Qaeda's attacks dramatically changed. "Today, our nation saw evil," was George W. Bush's initial response. It would not be his last; in The President of Good and Evil, philosopher Peter Singer counts 319 speeches that invoked the word--by June 2003. Bush's rhetoric was not unique, and many critics were quick to point out similarities between his calls against evil and those of Islamic fundamentalists who were as bent on Bush's doom as he was on theirs.

If the Islamicists' theology was worn on their sleeves, Bush's was only partially covered. Speechwriter David Frum, who authored the "axis of evil" speech, wrote that "in a country where almost two-thirds of the population believes in the devil, Bush was identifying Osama bin Laden and his gang as literally Satanic." Many observers have pointed out the apocalyptic language sprinkled through Bush's speeches to appeal to his Christian fundamentalist base while appearing acceptably nondenominational to the rest of us. Before advisers decided the word was incendiary, Bush even promised a crusade against evil. This sort of language, and the rigidity of the oratory, led many to think that the revival of talk about evil must be derived from a revival of religion. Where else would we get the idea?

Ask Abraham. It wasn't religion that told him the destruction of innocent life was an evil great enough to risk his life to oppose. Religion is not the source of ideas of good and evil, but one way to respond to them; it makes more sense to say that the fact of evil gave rise to religion than that religion gave rise to the idea of evil.

My concern at present is simply to show how evil can be discussed, and combated, in language common to all: those who seek their resolutions in religion, and those who seek them without it. Religion can serve as a source of explanation for evil or a solution to it, but it no more invented the concept of evil than the concept of good. Religion is rather a way of trying to give shape and structure to the moral concepts that are embedded in our lives.

It's a point that was missed in the aftermath of what philosopher Richard Bernstein called the abuse of evil, the use of the word evil to stifle thinking rather than promote it. Bush's rhetoric was stifling because it was offered as a substitute for explanation, not a demand for it, and because it was demonizing, a way of externalizing the idea of evil altogether as something other people do. The U.S. has often been ingenious in making evils invisible, as critics around the world have been quick to point out. But this was no reason to deny one claim that Bush repeated: terrorism is evil made visible.

Of all the ways to criticize the Bush government's response to 9/11, refusing to agree with him that the attacks were evil was the most self-defeating. You don't preserve your scruples by abandoning moral discourse to those who have fewer of them. To deny that the terrorist attacks were evil was to fly in the face of the shock and horror shared around most of the globe. In Berlin in the days after 9/11, I saw green-haired punks and stolid bureaucrats lay wreaths before the American embassy together; a banner printed with the word INCONCEIVABLE in 16 languages roll down the steeple of the city's oldest church; American flags hanging from windows in neighborhoods that have traditionally been hotbeds of anarchic anti-American feeling. Through my open window rose the strains of a men's chorus singing "Dona Nobis Pacem"; never was this proudly insouciant city so helpless and still. Berliners have witnessed enough evils to know another when they see it.

Bad, awful, wrong and wicked are perfectly useful terms of condemnation, strong enough to cover most of the things we abhor. Why did the attacks of 9/11 cross the line to merit the word evil? This kind of terrorism deliberately reproduces the worst of nature's rages. As Abraham reminded God before Sodom, moral beings are bound to deal differently with the just and the unjust. Plagues and floods and earthquakes ravage them all without distinction or warning. Before the Enlightenment, they were all known as natural evils; now we call them disasters, thereby recording our belief that nature has no moral categories. But if nature is blind to moral judgments, contemporary terrorists defy them. The very term collateral damage reminds us that we often fail to maintain the moral distinctions that decent people try to draw. But unlike earlier assassins who canceled plots that would have killed bystanders, contemporary terrorists don't even try.

Their deliberate rejection of the basic division between the guilty and the innocent, the implicated and the helpless allows them to create the dread and panic that is their aim. This is not only the fear of death--now real enough every time you sit next to a man who strikes you as odd on an airplane--but the fear of a world ruled by utter chaos. We know that accidents happen, but terrorists aim for a world where accident rules. On September 11, staying home with a sick child and calling in with a hangover both turned out to save people's lives. When the threat of random murder is omnipresent, we live in a world where reward and punishment, life and death are so arbitrary that their very meaning looms precarious. That's a state in which the possibility of community itself is threatened. Rousseau thought fear of death worse than death itself, for in poisoning our lives it undermines our trust and ultimately our freedom.

By imitating nature's implacable disregard for the difference between the just and the unjust, terrorism rejects the very basis of morality. (Presumably the fact that it's so basic led Abraham to take a stand.) And this is what made the events of 9/11 not just wrong but evil. With its brilliant eye for symbol, al-Qaeda targeted two places that have consistently produced forms of evil that were no less devastating for being less spectacular. For much of the world, Wall Street and the Pentagon stand for economic and military overdrive. But though it happened at the Pentagon and Wall Street, what happened that day was inexcusable. To think otherwise is not simply to think that two wrongs make a right. Even more important, it's to think that evil has only one form.

To explain something is not to excuse it, though both Bush and his critics often suggest otherwise. For this president, condemning terrorism as evil eliminates the need for understanding it; for many of his critics, attempting to understand the causes of terrorism precludes calling it evil. They fear that calling terrorism evil commits us to rule out any course of action but violent military response. This doesn't follow. Osama bin Laden and his closest deputies are not promising candidates for reeducation, and there violent solutions are the only realistic ones. But you can hold even their young followers responsible for their own choices while working politically to make those choices less appealing. The word evil by itself need not dehumanize if coupled with analyses that show how ordinary people with ordinary motives get caught in it.

These concerns should not prevent us from talking about evil, but they should prevent us from talking about evil people. Calling actions evil can be polarizing; so be it. Calling people evil is polemical. Worse than that, it presumes a knowledge of the human soul to which I have no right. According to Kant, I don't even know my own. This is not a philosopher's expression of ultimate ignorance, or a matter of general skepticism. On the contrary: we know, in general, quite a lot. We know that our capacities for error are great, and our capacities for deception even greater. We know that our motives are usually mixed, and that we're strongly inclined to see our own behavior in the best possible light, weakly inclined to see other people's in the worst. We also know that we are free. While the odds are against our becoming heroes, we might walk to the gallows after all. Face to face with an unjust sovereign, we may find that there is more--or less--to our character than we suspected. Given all that we do know, humility about what we don't know is not an epistemological but a moral imperative. However well you know me, you do not know my future, nor how I might redeem myself in it. And even after death ends the opportunities for active redemption, there may be reasons for excusing or blaming me which you will never guess. Evil people are irredeemable, and not even God, on some accounts, can be certain of that.

Religion isn't the source of the idea of evil, but it encourages our tendency to think of evil as an all-or-nothing affair. If you believe your soul will end in heaven or hell, then the question of whether your soul itself is good or evil matters--matters, in fact, more than anything in the world. Your purity of heart is your ticket to redemption; your lack of it may make you think your efforts to do good are pointless. If you are not convinced of an ultimate fate, good and evil can come in increments. No one thing tips the balance if there's no balance to tip.

What about sadists and psychopaths, people who take pleasure in causing misery and pain? What do you gain by focusing on them? Movies like Silence of the Lambs and its imitators, and the real cases that resemble them, receive vast amounts of attention. Though few people want to commit gruesome crimes, few people can avert their eyes from them. Like most things, this sort of perversity was already recorded in ancient Athens. One reason for fascination with such forms of evil is not perverse but understandable: we'd prefer to believe that evil looks like that than to face the fact that it may look, and feel, almost harmless.

For most of us, Hannibal Lecter is neither comprehensible nor tempting, and focusing on his ilk is a form of comfort: evil is as terrifying, alien and inscrutable as a black hole worlds away. In fact, a more recent film provides a far better model of what we should fear. Not the mad dictator Idi Amin but the young doctor in The Last King of Scotland shows the innocent descent into evil that threatens us most. Without malice in his heart or cruelty in his dreams, he's driven by the most common of motives: lust for proximity to beautiful women and powerful men, taste for the small privileges and luxuries that lighten everyday loads. It isn't wickedness but thoughtlessness which makes him cause a series of awful deaths without ever meaning to. As Hannah Arendt's book Thinking puts it, "The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never made their minds up to be or do evil at all." Focusing on psychopaths is a good way to forget this, and it carries more than one risk. In addition to obscuring how little evil is committed by madmen (psychologist Philip Zimbardo estimates it at 2 percent), it focuses on the evils for which responsibility is hardest to ascribe. Psychopaths, by definition, are too sick to be entirely culpable. But the problem, wrote Primo Levi, is "not that evil men did evil things, but that normal men did them."

Don't be judgmental can be an alibi for moral laziness, but it can also stem from an impulse that is sound. Some judgments do not belong in human hands. To call someone evil is to size up her soul, and none of us will ever be in a position to do that. To call her actions evil is another matter. If you want to encourage people to make moral distinctions rather than throwing up their hands in the relativism of helplessness, here is where to draw the line. Let Abraham be your model. He focused on the action rather than the agent, appealing to the best in character: surely the Judge of all the earth would not violate the fundamental principle of justice? It's undoubtedly easier to assume that your partner is well meaning when your partner is the Lord, but the principle remains useful in less exalted company. Have the courage to judge actions, even those committed by the highest authority; don't have the presumption to judge agents, even those of the lowest appearance.