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See No Evil

The great liberal blind spot.

1:45 PM, May 6, 2010 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Daniel Pipes is one of several commentators to note that many reporters would love to dismiss each new terrorist incident as the work of lunatics, until the disappointing news arrives that the suspect is yet another Muslim Jihadist. Several observations leap to their feet immediately, and there is a deeper point too.

See No Evil

Alleged terrorist Faisal Shahzad.

First: Suppose all these terrorists and terrorist hopefuls had in fact been run-of-the-mill madmen. What would that circumstance say about the age-old left-liberal dream of de-institutionalizing the insane? Are liberals ever wrong?

Second: Before 9/11 the country was basically indifferent to Muslims in America; since then it has been prejudiced in their favor. The Army’s treatment of the Fort Hood suspect during his pre-murderer phase, and its reaction immediately after the crime, show the classic modern doctrine of massive first strike against any species of bigotry--real, hypothetical or wholly imaginary. Do liberals have any concept of what this nation is like?

Third: If reporters ever read their own words or listened to their own voices, they would stop repeating the ugly cliché (as they did yet again post-Times Square) that the Taliban (or gang X) has “claimed credit” for some revolting crime or attempted crime. Do we say that “The jury assigned credit to Joe Shmoe for beating up an old lady and kicking her dog down the stairs”? The word reporters are looking for is guilt. The Taliban have admitted guilt, once again, for an attempted mass murder. Do liberals ever listen to what they are saying?

The deeper point: The intellectual mainstream has long sought refuge from the concept of evil in the far easier-to-swallow idea of insanity. Their hope-against-hoping that each new terrorist outrage will have been the work of mere lunatics and not jihadis is only the latest symptom--made worse (of course) by a phobic terror of bigotry--of the inability to look evil (and thus reality) in the face. The Obama administration has shown exactly the same incapacity in its dealings with the Iranian regime.

This is a long-standing theme of modern life. Even liberals are starting to notice. The respected Yale Law School Professor Paul Kahn writes (Out of Eden, 2007) that "Outside of fundamentalist religious groups, there is a reluctance to appeal to the idea of evil. . . . Evil is more than merely a point of view; it is not 'cured' by adopting new, more forgiving norms. . . . The sense of many people that modern philosophical discourses--particularly liberal theories--miss something essential is related to this failure to engage the problem of evil." These points have been made many time before, but cannot be repeated too often. Nearly all American conservatives would agree with Kahn, whether or not they are part of "fundamentalist religious groups."

And what accounts for this deep unwillingness to face up to evil? The intellectual mainstream is atheist, and atheists have never succeeded in fixing the idea of "evil" to the slippery rock-face of atheism. Of course there are honorable atheists who have patched something together to serve their purposes. But a respected modern introduction to ethics (by Simon Blackburn, 2001) lays it on the line on the last page: Modern ethics points us towards "an increased sensitivity" to various things--"to the environment, to sexual difference, to gender, to people different from ourselves in a whole variety of ways. . . ." Modern ethics suggests that we must be "careful, and mature, and imaginative, and fair, and nice, and lucky."

But not good.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. His most recent book is Judaism: A Way of Being (Yale, 2009).

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