Evil is as old as the world itself. The sixth chapter of Genesis tells the story of Noah, in which the evil, as embodied by an entire civilization, is condemned by God and then extirpated by a divinely inspired act of nature. The lesson of the Noah story is two-fold: humanity is capable of base evil; and the only way to cleanse that evil is total destruction.
The Paris bloodshed is yet another battleground in a clash of civilizations, the West on the one hand pitted against radical Islam on the other, that will have to be fought to the end. There will be a victor, and there will be the vanquished, and the only question before us is who will win. Much to the chagrin of the apologists (and we all know who they are), there is no middle ground. It is a zero-sum game, and the reason for that has to do with the nature of evil itself.
Two German-born philosophers who were considered the foremost thinkers of their respective eras–Immanuel Kant in the 19th century and Hannah Arendt in the 20th–offer very different secular explanations of evil (in contradistinction to the religious view).
For Kant, “radical evil” is an expression of self-interest, where the perpetrator subordinates the moral imperative in favor of naked self-interest. In whichever form evil is manifest, it is due to the part of human nature consumed by selfish impulses, a lust to achieve personal rewards at the expense of everyone else.
Arendt, who experienced her formative years in Nazi Germany and as a result devoted her scholarship to understanding the horrors of the Nazi death camps, does not understand evil as an expression of self-interest but as something far scarier since, to her, it transcends our moral concepts. The “banality of evil,” as Arendt described this phenomenon, is best personified by Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi leader who was the mastermind behind the murder of millions of Jews at Auschwitz and other death camps. To Arendt, Eichmann wasn’t necessarily acting in his self-interest; rather, he was a terrifyingly normal human being who did not care to reflect on his behavior. Eichmann was a “desk murderer” who was able to see other human beings as superfluous, or “living corpses” in Arendt’s words, and therefore undeserving of freedom or life. The banality of evil is horrifying in its normalcy; it transforms evil from a demonic impulse that potentially can be fixed into a quotidian human impulse that cannot.
The murder, brutality and misanthropy of radical Islam is a synthesis of Kant and Arendt. In its objective to establish a caliphate and cleanse the world of infidels (anyone who is not a Salafist Muslim, including other Muslims), ISIS is an expression of Kantian evil. It promotes self-interest over morality and sees the end as justifying the means. This is a terrifying worldview, since humanity becomes a bit player in an apocalyptic war that can only end in a genocidal outcome.
Still, Kant’s concept of evil does not provide a sufficient explanation for the evil that was manifest in Paris last week, or at Auschwitz. Kant cannot account for the human impulse (our soul?) that despite compelling self-interest will not indiscriminately shoot into a crowd, herd masses of people into a gas chamber or decapitate a baby. And it is this chasm, between Kant’s self-interest and our spark of humanity, that Arendt bridges.
To murder fathers and mothers, babies and the elderly, requires a dispassionate trigger that ignores the humanity in the human. The sociopathic perpetrator of these crimes is very human, just a different type of human than we are–and one who cannot be fixed. The fuse that engenders empathy and kindness in most humans has been forever tripped, and no therapy or dialogue can rehabilitate it.
The theological objective of radical Islam is the definition of a Kantian self-interest, but it is the systemic banality of evil that strips the evildoers of their humanity and the victims of their humanness. It will be up to our civilization, the one that is built upon a foundation of human dignity and freedom, to fight this evil, and fight it to the end.
Keith Zakheim is the CEO of PR firms Beckerman and Antenna Group, and serves as a strategic advisor to political leaders, both domestically and internationally.
By Keith Zakheim