Rich Lowry: The return of evil

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Sunday, February 8, 2015 9:01pm
  • Opinion

Where is Chris Kyle when you need him?

The late hero of the movie “American Sniper” made no apology for killing as many members of al-Qaida in Iraq, the precursor of ISIS, as he could get in his rifle sights.

After the burning alive of a captured Jordanian pilot, who would object to Kyle, or any other American sniper, shooting down these murderous fanatics if he could get access to them? And who would quibble with Kyle’s characterization of these people as “savages”?

Part of what the left finds objectionable about Kyle is his unshakable moral certainty. But in light of ISIS’s spectacular advertisements of its own cruelty, Kyle’s point of view holds up very well.

The ISIS beheadings last summer marked the return of the rhetoric of evil, because no other word will quite suffice for beheadings, crucifixions and, now, an immolation.

“Violent extremism,” the administration’s phrase of choice, obviously doesn’t capture it. You can pile on the adjectives — hideous, savage, heinous — and still not get at the boundless malevolence of caging a man and burning him alive.

In his first statement after the horrifying news of the pilot’s fate, President Barack Obama said the act reinforced the “viciousness and barbarity” of ISIS, which he repeated must be — what else? — “degraded and ultimately defeated.” He added that “whatever ideology they’re operating off of, it’s bankrupt.”

Argentina is bankrupt. Radio Shack is bankrupt. ISIS is evil.

Obama has used the word “evil” about ISIS on other occasions, although obviously not as often as his predecessor. George W. Bush made unapologetic use of the word and caught hell for it. On the left, it became a given that it spoke to his manifest unsuitability for the presidency.

The controversial ethicist Peter Singer wrote a book titled “The President of Good and Evil: Questioning the Ethics of George W. Bush.” Needless to say, it wasn’t an endorsement. Glenn Greenwald wrote his own tome titled “A Tragic Legacy: How a Good Vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency.”

It became a trope that Bush was just like his enemies in his fearsome certitude. Commentator Bruce Bartlett unburdened himself of this deep thought: Bush believes the Islamic radicals “can’t be persuaded, that they’re extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he’s just like them.”

Yeah, they were exactly the same except that one unhesitatingly ordered the hijacking of civilian aircraft to crash into skyscrapers, and the other unhesitatingly described that act of mass murder as evil.

What is it about the word “evil” that so offends the left?

It smacks of a religious worldview that makes secularists uncomfortable. It sets up a natural opposition between good and evil — what experts dissecting Bush called a “binary discourse” — that is altogether too confident in our own virtue for the left. It doesn’t necessarily entail any particular policy response, but it tilts toward a total commitment to fighting the enemy, since a campaign to degrade evil feels inherently inadequate.

If Bush was ill-served at times by his stubbornness and certainty, it’s always worth remembering that Democrats were perfectly content to lose to al-Qaida in Iraq when Bush was ordering the surge in 2007, and Obama’s insistence on pulling out of Iraq entirely was a priceless boon to ISIS.

Obama was allegedly the embodiment of a wholly different approach than Bush, much more nuanced than his predecessor and his embarrassing nomenclature of “evil.” Yet Obama’s doubts were more about the usefulness and goodness of American power than about his own purposes. He pursued the “end” of the Bush-era wars at all costs, regardless of the depravity of the forces on the ground who would benefit.

We were supposed to be beyond good versus evil, although the other side didn’t get the memo and never left the field. It’s almost as if the greatest trick evil ever played was persuading the left not to call it by its proper name.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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