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
"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
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
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? …