Two events happened this spring in New York City that flummoxed our sophisticated pundits.
First, a naturalized citizen failed to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. Why did Faisal Shahzad become a jihadist? Explanations included revenge for drone attacks in Pakistan, misery over the foreclosure of his home, rage against George W. Bush, Islamist hatred for infidels, and anger at the creators of South Park, a TV show that depicted Muhammad.
Second, after helping an assaulted woman, a homeless immigrant was stabbed in Queens and left for over an hour as dozens of passersby ignored him. A surveillance camera captured the whole scene. When firefighters arrived, Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax was dead. Why were there no Good Samaritans? Explanations included bystander apathy, diffusion of responsibility, and desensitization to violence.
The pundits were reluctant to acknowledge the obvious presence of evil in both events, owing to our thin moral discourse and metaphysical uncertainties. Thankfully, British literary critic Terry Eagleton is alert: "We know nothing any more of choirs of heavenly hosts, but we know about Auschwitz …. Perhaps evil is all that now keeps warm the space where God used to be."
On Evil (Yale University Press), a superlative follow-up to Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution, argues against two prevailing viewpoints: "Either human actions are explicable, in which case they cannot be evil; or they are evil, in which case there is nothing more to be said about them." The first viewpoint besets our sanguine politicians, journalists, and social scientists who tend to explain away evil, while the second besets our dour theologians and ministers who invoke "evil" as a conversation stopper. Evil—like God—is ...