In a post-Christian era, the problem of Evil is a political problem in that it is allowed to close down a debate that current events so urgently require.
In this fascinating book, Phillip Cole argues that this powerful myth (of Evil) still holds us enthralled but that it tells us very little about the real world in dealing with Terrorists or serial killers, etc, and yet it affects pages of newspaper copy and even judicial judgements. It allows a convenient closure on any rational inquiry into events that are reduced to being evil because they are evil (which tells us not a lot).
Like many, my jaw was left agape by the terrible events of 11.9.2001, but when the politicians stepped up and refused to condsider the possibility of causal connection, it had further to drop yet. Unlike Horror, Terror is without explanation at its confrontation, a fear of the unknown, apparently without cause, but its remedy cries out for exposure and understanding. Being told it was Evil full stop with all the attendant slurrs of moral relativism seemed hopelessly inadequate; was the defence of Enlightenment values (the 'Clash' of which we were warned) to be mired in this mythology of Evil?
Cole's book was badly needed to hand, as he explains the grip Evil holds and its use as a political manipulator (of a frightened and compliant public, prepared to concede its liberties). Recognition of this mythology doesn't in itself provide a political solution to problems described as Evil, but it is surely a more rational (and enlightened) basis for attempting to do so.
The Myth of Evil was presented at this year's Edinburgh Book Festival alongside Michael Gove's Celsius 7/7 which proved a remarkably apposite example of Evil's political uses (as Gove warns of a new Totalitarianism stalking us in our sleep, where this monster is fully formed and without need of further investigation). Whether we sweat out the nightmare or actually look under the bed for an explanation as Cole would prefer, as Big Brother himself might say, you decide. Cole's book certainly seems a better starting point to me.
Most jaws dropped on 11th September 2001. And for those like me who amazingly found their jaws still had further to go when the Political reaction came on full stream in the following days, this is a reassuring book even if we have had to wait rather too long for it. Explanation we were told was exoneration and what we were fed was that loop to end all further discourse 'because it was Evil...'. And has this account actually helped at all in the intervening 5 years?
Phillip Cole's book argues convincingly that while Evil remains a powerful idea, it doesn't go beyond mythology and its use in attempting to understand human affairs is far from helpful, whether with terrorism or more traditional forms of homicide. It closes down any possible search for causes and rational explanation, let alone any solution save the most draconian; Evil, like the dragons of old or the witches of comparatively recent history, must be slain.
He does however illustrate Evil's political uses with both historical and contemporary examples in which it both frightens and closes down debate - a most useful tool of herd management.
This book was presented at the Edinburgh Book Festival together with Michael Gove's alarmist Celsius 7/7, which is a wake up call to Islamist Totalitarianism, a monster fully formed and already under our beds as we slumber. An interesting but unconvincingly narrow explanation of current anxieties where obscure Islamist conspiracy is more credible than self evident injustice and wretched lives.
I know which book I would prefer for my politicians' bedside reading.