The Problem of Evil

Why do American leaders who vow “never again” repeatedly fail to stop genocide?  ~Samantha Powers, 2002, A Problem from Hell, America and the Age of Genocide~

The Problem of Evil will be the fundamental problem of postwar intellectual life in Europe…as death became the fundamental problem after the last war. ~Hannah Arendt, 1945~

I’ve been thinking about evil again lately.  Sometimes it wakes me up at 3:00 AM when my kindly husband gets up and fetches a glass of milk for me from the kitchen.  I tell him I’m in my second childhood, having nightmares and need my middle-of-the night-milk.  I’d blame the pain killers if I hadn’t stopped taking them two weeks ago.  No, its me.

In 1965 after my sixth pregnancy in four years and third childbirth, I fell apart with what I know now was a severe postpartum depression. I awakened my then husband who did not know what to do. So, he a non-believer, called my priest whose response to the priest’s question, “Is she always like this?” was “I don’t know.”

I was a rock in those days.  The rock is still there, worn away and flaked by time but stronger, if a bit weathered and containing a few replacement parts.

Once in a while, however, something breaks through and disturbs me mightily.  Lately, its been the genocidal atrocities in Kurdistan, i.e. Iraq.

There are those here in America and other parts of the world who will believe fellow humans, especially “religious” ones could never do what some news reports suggest.  Crucifying fathers, raping and killing mothers and young girls, beheading children.  No one could be so evil.

When WWII ended, General Eisenhower personally visited the concentration camps the Allies uncovered.  He said he wanted to be a witness to that which some would later deny. Today there are those who deny these camps existed, let alone that fellow humans carried out the atrocities of which they are accused.

How do people convince themselves that evil is not a problem.  How do they seeing evil, look the other way, close their eyes and say we can do nothing?  How did Americans develop a “fortress America” mentality?

In The Long Shadow: Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century  historian and critic David Reynolds explores the process by which Americans from the US Civil War to the Cold War and beyond, became isolationists, believing America had no role in world affairs.

From the first days of the Republic, isolationists and war protestors have lived among us.  It is so easy to turn away and pretend atrocities have nothing to do with us.  It is so easy to protest war.

Excepting George Patton, almost nobody likes war. Many think the solution to handling bullies is to withdraw and do nothing.  Just ignore them, mom said when I complained about the boys who dogged my sister and me after school every day, throwing rocks with remarkable aim. We were Catholic and Yankees, and in their eyes the devils, or so they had been told.

In 1861, Americans were so opposed to war, if South Carolina hadn’t fired on Fort Sumter, the Civil War might never have happened. Some revisionist historians claim the Civil War was about slavery, but it wasn’t.  Slavery became a cause about half-way through the war.

Ditto WWI where Americans elected peacenik Woodrow Wilson president, and found themselves embroiled in a conflict they had sought to avoid. Reynolds suggests the resulting Versailles Treaty to end the conflict was timid beyond belief in the assignment of war guilt. Thank goodness FDR (who disagreed with Wilson on many issues) was president when WWII began.  FDR was a man of great courage and probably our finest president. He stood up to his critics and did the right thing.

Over the years, my respect for FDR has increased exponentially.  He hated war, but he had the courage to stand up to the pollsters and go to war when it was necessary for America and the world.

You may not like it but evil is real and ignoring it will not make it go away.



20 thoughts on “The Problem of Evil

  1. The news every evening is horrifying in the extreme. Things seem to be escalating everywhere and evil does look unchecked. What to do, how to do it? Half measures don’t seem to have helped. Going in improperly, ineffectively has caused more harm in the end than good, it seems. So what to do? How do we do it?


  2. I so admire Ike for being a witness to those WWII horrors. Today everyone is witness and the cement runs red with the blood. I am beyond horrified.

    MacArthur liked war too.


  3. when a neighborhood bully sent my friend and I crying to my Dad he said” let me teach you girls how to fight”, there are two of you and one of him. We sent him crying home the very same day.I look for good but don’t ignore evil.


    • My sister and I couldn’t fight this gang of boys. There was nothing to do but put up with their cruelty until they grew weary of tormenting us. I have no doubt they grew up to become beer guzzling wife abuses. They were really nasty boys.


  4. Edmund Burke said it better than you or I could ever “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Expounding on that, the success of evil is incremental. If it is unopposed one place it will crop up somewhere else and so on and so on until eventually it will be right on our doorstep. It is closer than anyone thinks right now.


  5. You are right. When we recognise evil we must stand up and be counted.
    There is no such thing as not wanting to interfere. Evil needs to be dealt with.

    Sometimes it’s easy to recognise evil, at others it might be just a case of ‘them and us’.
    Not now, though.

    PS: there is a coincidence between your post and what I have been writing today: a kind of prologue to a memoir which deals with looking away before WWII in Germany.


    • We become complacent about our own lives. Americans have never had the horror of war brought home to them. I live in Washington DC and witnessed the 9-11 debacle at the Pentagon which happened six blocks from my home. As terrifying as that was it cannot compare with the carnage in the Middle East today.


  6. You always give me food for thought. Gregg and I talked at length on this very subject today. We can’t stick our head in the sand and pretend that these horrors are not going on. Sadly they have been going on since the beginning of time.


  7. I’m like you, I have great respect for FDR. It’s not fun to fight a war or to stand up against evil, but if no one does it, then one day the evil will come for us. I was pleased to hear the Pope direct comments to the atrocities going on around the world. None of the local pastors seem to be saying anything.


  8. Every generation deals with new forms of evil in the world. As an enlightened society it seems we should all be progressing along toward the cause of peace, making great strides. But sadly we are far from it. As a believer in Christ, I know that this is only the beginning…yet I still pray for peace.


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