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Online Edition - Vol. VII, No. 7: October 2001

Confronting Evil

by James Hitchcock

The horrendous events of September 11 confront us with a reality even more disturbing than our apparent vulnerability to terrorist attacks. They require us to reexamine our entire understanding of the nature of reality.

In the face of unimaginable catastrophe there has been much talk about tragedy, human suffering, heroism, cowardice, patriotism, and resisting hatred, all of which are true as far as they go.

But events now confront us with realities so enormous that little can be said, and our culture's ultimate failure is that it actively works against the ability to understand such things. As most Westerners view reality, there is no reason why such things should happen. Thus it seems that those who perpetrate such acts have simply made certain mistakes of understanding, reinforced by excessive emotion. Terrorism, we are told, solves nothing. The terrorists' grievances are understandable, but they have chosen the wrong methods.

For some people the whole episode revolves around technical problems better security systems, the necessity henceforth to be more vigilant, in ways other peoples simply take for granted. For others the solution is a retaliation against the terrorists, followed by diplomatic efforts to "get to the root of the problem". What these have in common is the assumption that what we face is containable and comprehensible within the categories of understanding that our culture permits.

People turn to religion at such moments, but even the most devout realize the limits of the comfort that faith provides for bereaved people. Christianity offers no "answer" to the questions, no coherent resolution of all perplexities. Rather it speaks of the "mystery of iniquity". The common religious responses are not wrong comfort for the bereaved, the promise of resurrection, a righteous desire for justice, love of enemies. But none of these explain "why". Rather our faith opens us to the eternal and cosmic perspective.

This is not only our belief that the dead still live in Christ, which provides comfort and meaning in a way no purely worldly creed can equal. It means rather that our faith makes us understand that events of this kind are not merely bizarre anomalies. We are engaged, as we always have been, in a war against principalities and powers, something we can forget only because of the numerous comforts our culture provides.

Despite our Puritan heritage, most Americans simply do not believe in evil. They prefer to believe in "mistakes", "failure to grow", "misguided zeal", "social causes", "lack of empathy for others", and similar rationalizations. We apply those ideas routinely to our own lives, thus we see the cosmic picture in the same way.

The two common explanations of terrorism are a sense of injustice and religious fanaticism, and both are real enough.

Predictably, fanaticism will be used to argue that religious belief is a dangerous thing, the source of many of the world's evils, and there is a point to that claim, albeit not the one that its proponents make. Precisely because religion does put us in touch with the deepest wellsprings of existence, it has the greatest potential for both good and evil. A religionless world, whatever else it might be, would be a spiritually impoverished world. Religion is indeed a volatile substance, precisely because it is the realm where good and evil directly meet.

The "problem of evil" is insoluble even for Christians, because finally we do not know why the all-good God permits evil, although our greatest glory our freedom is also the instrument by which we thwart the divine will.

Since God cannot create evil, Christianity defines evil as nothingness, the absence of being, as Saint Thomas Aquinas calls it.

At first this may seem specious, but the events of September 11 show quite dramatically that it is so. The essence of the terrorist act is to reduce being to nothingness. Before our very eyes, some of the most imposing monuments of our prosperous society are reduced to dust, even as thousands of human beings cease to exist in this world. The essence of all evil is to make something into nothing. The climax of the latest terrorist acts was the willful annihilation of the terrorists' own selves, the ultimate act of allegiance to nothingness.

For motives we find difficult to understand, this urge to annihilate has a powerful fascination. Thus, if the apparent causes of terrorism were removed, things of this kind would still occur, because they are rooted in human nature gone awry. Political and religious grievances provide the rationale for such actions, but such things happen every day on the personal level.

Religion has to do with ultimate reality. God, Saint Thomas tells us, is pure being, the fullness of existence. But Satan is a fallen angel whose own limitations nurture a horrifying hatred of all that is good, a hatred of being itself. The power of evil is the power of a vacuum a nothingness that sucks everything into itself in order to destroy.

[Copyright © 2001 James Hitchcock. Used with permission.]

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James Hitchcock, professor of history at Saint Louis University, writes a bi-weekly column for the Catholic press. More of his writings can be read online on the Women for Faith & Family web site by clicking here.

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