Calling Evil by Name ; A Word Once Reserved for Atrocities Is Now Used Liberally. but Does the Rude Guy at the Airport Deserve the Label?

Article excerpt

In Wichita, Kan., as people absorb the news that an alleged serial killer lived among them for decades, some are using a word often associated with heinous crime: evil. Not everyone finds it an easy term to apply to a neighbor. One resident told a reporter that the man he attended church with - allegedly responsible for at least 10 murders since the 1970s - did not have "the face of evil."

Even before the Midwestern dogcatcher was arrested, America was experiencing a revival of the word evil in its public conversation. After Sept. 11, it became part of the political discourse ("axis of evil") and has occupied Americans struggling to make sense of why such events happen. Pop culture incorporates it into movies and TV shows, and books about evil now crowd store shelves, with more on the way.

"We're now using the word everywhere," says Frederick Schmidt, an associate professor of Christian spirituality at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "The events since 9/11 have brought it back into the center of American vocabulary, which is both a bad and a good thing."

Though use of the word "evil" is on the rise, Americans are finding it difficult to agree on what it means. Influenced by religious or cultural values, they tend to use it to describe both a supernatural force and something humans create. In some cases, the tag is pinned onto people; in others, to their actions. Many adopt the "I know it when I see it" definition.

Subtle forms overlooked?

As the label gets attached to everything from Major League Baseball's Yankees ("The Evil Empire") to terrorists, Americans are being challenged to probe the concept more deeply. Attempting to focus the discussion, some ethicists and writers argue that people need to stop putting the notion of evil at arm's length - of thinking that it applies only to others or to singular, horrific events. That tendency risks overlooking subtler forms of evil and of putting off looking for ways to avoid it.

"You need to ask why is it that we're so surprised when the alleged BTK killer [in Wichita] ends up being someone who lives among us and works in our church and is a Cub Scout leader," says Daryl Koehn, an ethicist at the University of St. Thomas in Houston and author of a new book, "The Nature of Evil." "We want evil to be monstrous," she says, "because if evil is monstrous, then by definition it doesn't look like us."

On some level, it's appropriate for people to be able to name evil when they see it, to help identify behaviors that are profoundly destructive, says Professor Schmidt, an ordained Episcopal priest. But he cautions that such labeling should be done carefully - and humbly.

"The difficulty is that that kind of language can obscure a more sophisticated analysis of people's behavior," he says. "To call people evil potentially dehumanizes them and therefore makes them potentially the object of punitive actions taken without regard to their humanity."

It also may shift the gaze away from considering society's own responsibility for events, and for their causes.

"For example," he says, "what are the roots of racism? …