How Political Evil is the Devil You Know

Perniciousness and Politics Often Go Hand in Hand

The leaders of the anti-genocide movement were hardly villains themselves. But they are Mr. Wolfe’s villains. Political Evil is a book about the importance of insisting on the niceties of human nastiness. It aims to provide an atlas of the underside of modern political life. Mr. Wolfe has subdivided his subject into four categories: Terrorism, Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing, and “Counterevil”—the fighting of evil with evil methods. Each division of evil is complemented by an arsenal of prescriptions for combating it. It is a grand concept for a book. Along the way, Mr. Wolfe is obliged to pick a path through the relevant theory. His tread is heavy. Augustine was wrong; Kant was wrong; Mani was wrong; Arendt was wrong; and Philip Zimbardo, architect of the Stanford Prison Experiment, was very wrong. Mr. Wolfe stands on the shoulders of giants, and frequently pokes them in the eye.

The bits on metaphysics, however, are Mr. Wolfe’s shallowest. His profoundest passages are about political language. Political Evil is a book that is mostly about the evils of exaggeration.


In Mr. Wolfe’s view, few evildoers are radical in the sense that Hitlerian Germany was radical: devoid of rational political aims. The establishment of a Palestinian state is, for instance, a rational political aim. However heinous their methods, people in pursuit of it are at least partially susceptible to political influence. Racially pure planetary dominion, of the sort sought by the Nazis, is not a rational political aim. Its agents can be met only with force. “Islamofascism” is therefore a term that vexes Mr. Wolfe. No one is served by rhetoric that pens in the moderate among our enemies with the monstrous. “In an age of terror, responding with words is likely to wind up saving more lives than responding with arms. Even when both are required, it is foolish to give up both.” Mr. Wolfe is not nostalgic for the era of realpolitik—he has harsh words for Henry Kissinger—but he is nostalgic for eras with a superior respect for understatement.

Such eras have been rare. If Mr. Wolfe’s book is any guide, hyperbole is as American as the hot dog. The book’s finest chapter, “The Misuses of Appeasement,” presents a brief history of America’s rhetorical enthrallment by the example of Neville Chamberlain, the appeaser of Hitler. “No other legacy of our confused ways of responding to evil is more dangerous than our constant attempts to create new Hitlers on the one hand and to overcompensate for Chamberlain’s mistake on the other,” Mr. Wolfe writes. In every post-WWII American military imbroglio, the appeasement analogy has been a crucial rhetorical lever. General Douglas MacArthur sincerely feared the totalitarian potential of his enemies when he invoked Chamberlain, as did J.F.K. and L.B.J. The sincerity of the invocation has subsequently waned. “By the time the appeasement rhetoric was applied to Iran and Iraq, by contrast, the cynicism had become palpable.”

“The evils of totalitarianism … were unique to a particular time and place.” Mr. Wolfe’s insight is as plain to state as it would be Herculean to implement: all evil is particular, and it must be addressed particularly. Generalities may stir the blood, but they are the ball and chain of diplomacy. Once you have pegged your foe as the heir to Goebbels, there can be no talking it through over a bottle of Perrier. “Powerful nation-states that do not use their power with restraint waste the advantages their power gives them,” Mr. Wolfe writes. That restraint can manifest itself verbally. It can also manifest itself in areas where excesses leads to caskets. Writes Mr. Wolfe, “If the intention of the 19 terrorists who sacrificed their lives on Sept. 11 was not only to rain death and destruction but to force the United States into overreactive acts of folly, their strategy has to be considered a success.”


How Political Evil is the Devil You Know