News / USA

Americans Debate Concept of Evil in Relation to Terrorism, Shootings

Americans Debate Whether Terrorism, Shootings Are Evili
May 09, 2013 11:47 PM
Many people in the United States - including the president - view violent events such as the Boston Marathon bombings and school shootings as part of a struggle between good and evil. This has led to a debate about whether that view helps - or prevents - Americans from understanding why these things happen. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Americans Debate Whether Terrorism, Shootings Are Evil
Many people in the United States, including the president, view violent events such as school shootings and the Boston Marathon bombings as part of a struggle between good and evil.  This has led to a debate about whether that view helps or prevents Americans from understanding why these things happen.

A few days after the marathon bombings, President Barack Obama spoke at an interfaith service in Boston.

"You’ve shown us, Boston, that in the face of evil, Americans will lift up what’s good," Obama said.

He is not the first U.S. president to use the word "evil."  

Ronald Reagan used the word to label the Soviet Union. "To ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire," Reagan said.

President George W. Bush used the word to describe Saddam Hussein's Iraq, along with Iran and North Korea. "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil," Bush said.

During the recent National Prayer Day sponsored by groups from the religious right, devotees gathered on Capitol Hill and prayed to God to vanquish what they see as evil in Washington and the world.

"We can all do things that bring harm, and when you take that on a worldwide level, you have some pretty massive evil that can take place," said Dave Butts, president of Harvest Prayer Ministries.

But what about the religious left?  Evangelical pastor Jim Wallis, an anti-war activist during the Vietnam era, criticized the invasion of Iraq.  But, he says the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States were evil.

"Evil is real.  Evil is very real.  How we respond to it can help overcome it, or just extend it and make it grow exponentially," Wallis said.

It may be correct to describe horrific violence as evil.  But some people worry that it prevents Americans from having a serious conversation about the causes of terrorism and gun violence.

"For me, evil is what I call a 'black hole' concept," said Phillip Cole, a professor of applied philosophy at the University of South Wales and author of "The Myth of Evil."

"It kind of blocks our understanding.  It prevents us from going any farther.  It brings the conversation to a halt," Cole said.

Some scholars say that evil as a category can be useful.  They say it can help the human mind know whether to respond to something it does not like with moral outrage or ordinary displeasure.

But Cole says when people attribute evil to an event, they mythologize it and turn it into a Hollywood-like epic struggle.

And that, he adds, can make perceived opponents appear to be monsters.

"Therefore, it's enormously dangerous to identify people as evil, because it opens the door to doing terrible things.  And very innocent people have been harmed by that," Cole said.

Cole says even in the Holocaust, the real horror was that it was carried out by ordinary people.

For many Americans, the more that becomes known about the two brothers accused of carrying out the Boston bombings, the more their motives seem to defy categorizing.

President Obama also referred to evil in a 2009 speech when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway.

"The general theme of the Nobel speech says that this is a dangerous world, where real evil exists out there," Obama said.

He later appeared on the television program PBS Newshour to explain his remarks. Critics said his defense of America's military response to terrorism in the Nobel lecture was the same reasoning his predecessor used to justify the war in Iraq.

Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs

Day in Photos

A dog, with his fur dyed green and wearing antlers made out of red fabric, poses for a photograph before participating in the Thanksgiving Day Parade in El Paso, Texas, United States, Nov. 26, 2015.

A dog, with his fur dyed green and wearing antlers made out of red fabric, poses for a photograph before participating in the Thanksgiving Day Parade in El Paso, Texas, United States, Nov. 26, 2015.