Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance

Despite being a brute and massive fact of human experience, evil is often denatured
within liberal-leftist discourse: it is redescribed, recalibrated, recategorised. People
do unspeakably terrible things all the time: no liberal-leftist will deny that. But
there is a general reluctance on the liberal-left to name these things, still less the
persons who do them, as evil. Broadly speaking, this reluctance is informed by
three lines of argument. The first is that as a concept evil is epistemically unsound:
radically insensitive to the various shades, nuances and complexities which shape
social and political life. When, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11
attacks, George W. Bush seized upon the word ‘evil’ to describe the perpetrators,
he was assailed on the liberal-left for being crass and reductive. It was further
evidence, if any were needed, of his ‘cowboy’ mentality, of his intellectual nullity.
The second argument is that the term evil can be pressed effortlessly into the
service of demagoguery and the demonization of vulnerable ‘others.’ Evil is not
just a descriptive term; it is also an evaluative resource of great power. Indeed to
characterise an act as ‘evil’ is to condemn it in the severest terms possible. It is to
construct it as something terrible, despicable, and to be fought, destroyed even.
Liberals and leftists are acutely aware of this, and are thus reluctant to employ the
term for fear that it will be used for inhumane purposes. The third argument is that
the concept of evil serves to obstruct or impede any attempt to understand the
deeper ‘root causes’ of the behaviour it vilifies. The argument seems to be that the
invocation of the term engenders too much emotional baggage, which gets in the
way of neutral, dispassionate analysis.

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