20 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Thomas J. Farrell
- Published on Amazon.com
In his learned new book Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (2011), Alan Wolfe of Boston College examines and discusses political evil, concentrating political evil in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. If you have found yourself at times reflecting on political evil and American foreign policy, and perhaps reflecting on American foreign policy as political evil, you may find Wolfe's detailed discussion of political evil thought provoking, regardless of whether you should happen to agree or to disagree with certain points he makes. In short, if you're looking for a thought-provoking book to read about political evil, you will almost certainly not be disappointed by Wolfe's book. Regardless of how individual readers, including me, may respond to particular points he makes, Wolfe has done the country an enormous service by examining and discussing the various forms of political evil and the various ways of discussing political evil that he examines and discusses. As a result, his book deserves to be widely read and discussed.
If Wolfe's book were widely read and discussed as it deserves to be, the discussion could take our current political discussion to a new level by giving liberals news ways of thinking about and discussing political evil. If this desirable result were to happen, then liberals would be better equipped to fight the good fight against the Republican noise machine. In my estimate, the Republican noise machine has for decades out-scored, as it were, tongue-tied liberals.
In roughly the first half of the book, Wolfe discusses World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. He analyzes totalitarianism in detail, with special attention to Hannah Arendt's work. In the second half of the book, Wolfe turns his attention to far more detailed discussions of terrorism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and the politics of countering political evil, or counter-evil. Because of my own interest in terrorism, I will highlight his discussion of terrorism.
ALAN WOLFE'S VIEW OF TERRORISM TODAY
Is terrorism today "a form of unreconstructed evil that must be eradicated from the face of the earth through mobilization of military might" (page 149), as certain political leaders such as Bush have suggested? No, says Wolfe. He says that terrorism is a form of political evil. As a result, "we should deal with the political realities that . . . lead terrorists to go on their killing sprees" (page 148). Sounds reasonable enough to me. How does this sound to you?
But Wolfe quotes the following statement from Benjamin Netanyahu's 1995 book: "The salient point that has to be underlined again and again is that nothing justifies terrorism, that it is evil per se - that the various real or imagined reasons proffered by the terrorists to justify their actions are meaningless" (quoted on page 150; italics in the original).
In the final analysis I agree with Netanyahu that nothing justifies terrorism. However, I am not convinced that it is relevant to claim that "the various real or imagined reasons proffered by the terrorists to justify their actions are meaningless." I might agree that the reasons proffered to justify their actions do not justify their actions. Nevertheless, I think we should find out what their reasons are for acting in the ways in which they act as terrorists.
Wolfe summarizes three general forms of counterterrorism policies: (1) the war model, (2) the criminal justice model, and (3) the reconciliatory model (page 150). He clearly favors the reconciliatory model. "The key proposition of the reconciliatory model," he says, "is that terrorism is a form of politics and that the best venues for responding to it are through diplomacy and negotiation" (page 151).
In his speech on September 20, 2001, former President George W. Bush made "his case that terrorism was evil, pure and simple" (page 160). He clearly opted for the war model by leading the nation into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Wolfe credits President Barack Obama with having a less Manichaean rhetorical style than his predecessor had: "the less Manichaean rhetorical style of Obama," Wolfe says, "is one of the few hopeful signs that the United States could possibly shift to a more sensible way of thinking about the threat that terrorism represents" (page 172). After all, terrorism "is a tactic relied upon by the weak," Wolfe notes, and "no terrorist campaign has ever gone on forever" (page 170). He observes that "[t]errorists are few" (page 173). However, because "[t]hose inclined to support their goals can be many," "[r]educing the number of the latter is crucial to limiting the damage inflicted by the former" (page 173).
"That can best be done," Wolfe claims, "by promoting the democratic way of life not as a rhetoric weapon in a long-term ideological struggle but as concrete proof that those who learn to live with differences by not killing those with whom they disagree have discovered a way of practicing politics that works better than any other available method" (page 174).
So democracy is a way of practicing politics that works better than any other available method for practicing politics, as Wolfe says it is. But American democracy needs to work through its foreign-policy efforts to reduce the number of people in the world who might be inclined to support terrorists' goals against the United States.