Every day I pray, "Deliver us from evil." Yet I long for the vocabulary of evil to make a comeback and be restored to our common language.

My wife and I recently saw the movie Hotel Rwanda, a moving account of one man's moral growth, and how tragic events stretched him from narrow devotion to his immediate family to a principled love for all Rwandans—both Hutu and Tutsi.

The film recounted how both United States and United Nations spokespersons refused to call the 1994 Rwandan genocide by its right name, preferring instead to increase the distance between language and reality by saying "acts of genocide" had been committed. Such language shenanigans would be funny if they hadn't actually cost people their lives.

The language of diplomats and politicians is curious. It is often designed to insulate us from reality. In the December 2004 issue of International Relations, political scientist Farid Abdel-Nour pointed to the same phenomenon in discussions of international law and human rights. Too often, the vocabulary of international law is framed in terms of "inter-societal norms." San Diego State University's Abdel-Nour demonstrates the "obfuscation" of such talk by describing the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center as a violation of "the international norm prohibiting the targeting of civilians." It is an accurate description, but it hides the horror and the multiple dimensions of what happened.

What we need to recover, says Abdel-Nour, is the vocabulary of evil. To say that the September 11 attacks were evil may lack some analytical clarity (we can debate what evil means), but it compensates for that loss with absolute ethical clarity (we can agree on the horror).

What Psychiatry Can't Explain

Abdel-Nour is not ...

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