One word has dominated conversation in a week that belongs to Saddam Hussein and Ian Huntley: evil. This makes most liberal-lefties like me squirm. When George Bush speaks of "evil", we retch. Few people dispute that Saddam (or the leaders of the other regimes he calls evil, North Korea and Iran) is utterly abhorrent. It is the explicitly religious overtones that make us ill. When Bush talks about evil, he is using it in the same way the epileptic Biblical prophets did when they hallucinated demons. He is a Protestant fundamentalist who believes in the Devil and casts doubt on evolution.
But as the sane recoil from this, are we being too quick to ditch the term? When we see something vile, like the murder of children, something visceral impels the vast majority of humans to label it evil. Can the concept be rescued from the religious? Philosophical discussions of evil have evolved incredibly quickly in the last few centuries. For more than two millennia after the writing of the Torah, discussions of evil focussed on the question of theodicy: how can bad events be reconciled with the omnipotence of a good God? Since the 18th century, the argument has moved on, but as in so many moral debates, we are living in the wreckage of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. All of us have inherited their categories of thought. Atheists are trying to replace their old foundation stone of God with rational principles - and all the while trying to prevent the house built on those foundations from collapsing. In human terms, a few centuries is a very quick time to revise such a basic intellectual concept. It is no wonder we are stumbling, and some primitive notions persist even among powerful people.
Actually, there is an atheist concept of "radical evil" that has been developed since the Holocaust by thinkers like Hannah Arendt, and it can be used by the left to recapture this basic human concept from the likes of Bush. It understands evil as a descriptive term, a way of labelling the most extreme breaches of human morality. This contrasts with the Reagan-Bush understanding, shared by the likes of Osama Bin Laden and the Pope, which sees evil not just as a description but as an explanation. When I call something evil, it is the beginning of an exploration of how a horrific event occurred. When Bush and his fellow fundamentalists use it, they are closing down the argument: "Oh, the guy was evil, that's why he did it".
Even post-religious thinkers, however, have been tempted to describe evil as something mysterious and incomprehensible. The most beautiful example of the mystification of evil is, I think, Professor George Steiner's 1981 novel The Portage to San Cristobal of AH, which I can't stop thinking about this week. Steiner takes a preposterous pulp fiction premise - a 90-year-old Adolf Hitler is tracked in the Amazon jungle by a group of Holocaust survivors - and uses it to explore his attitude towards evil. When they find Hitler, the survivors counsel each other: "Do not let him speak. His words mean hatred and vomit of life."
They see his evil as so vast and contagious that it might even infect them, his victims. They cannot examine or try to understand Hitler, because he is a demonic force beyond rationality. Even when they capture the physical Adolf Hitler, limping and ancient, they do not find the answers - the totalising explanation - that they hoped for. One of the survivors asks a friend, as they camp out in the jungle waiting to bring the Fuhrer back to civilisation, what he will do when they return to Paris and Hitler is behind bars. "Me? I'll go look for Adolf Hitler," he replies.
Steiner's almost irresistible attempt to depict evil as a quasi-magical force is, I think, totally wrong. In the course of my work, I have met some people whose acts would be widely considered evil: paedophiles jailed for raping toddlers, Hamas militants planning to become suicide bombers, Israeli settlers in Hebron who raise their children to think of Arabs as "dogs", neo-Nazis and al-Qa'ida sympathisers. None of them were incomprehensible. In fact, there were rather mundane rational explanations for almost all their evil acts: extreme experiences of childhood sexual abuse and so on. Of course, this does not provide excuses - their behaviour remains obscene - but it undermines the Steinerian idea that their evil lifts them to a level beyond comprehension. There are complex human causes behind even the crimes of Hitler, Hussein and Huntley.
The best way to illustrate why evil is not inhuman is to trace the development of Hannah Arendt's thought. Born into an assimilated German-Jewish family nearly a century ago, she fled her home country in 1933. In 1945 - as the news of the camps filtered out - she declared: "The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of post-war intellectual life in Europe."
She was always an atheist and sought a concept of evil without either a God or a Devil, but her initial response was to describe the Holocaust as an example of mystified absolute evil, "because it can no longer be deduced from humanly comprehensible motives." Like Steiner, she saw evil not as belonging on a continuum with normal human behaviour, but as a rupture in the fabric of humanity, a moment in which its perpetrators become something non-human.
But then something changed her. She reported for The New Yorker on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal who was captured and tried in Israel in 1961. He was not a demon, nor a creature of such dazzling charisma that, like Steiner's Hitler, his very words had to be blocked out. She was struck - in her famous phrase - by "the banality of evil."
When Shakespeare described great evil in figures like Richard III, he imagined that there was a great intelligence underpinning and rationalising their evil acts. The magnitude of the evil required a magnitude of intellect. Arendt found all that to be mythical. She found that "evil deeds committed on a gigantic scale could not be traced to wickedness, pathology or ideological conviction in the doer. Eichmann's only distinction was a perhaps extraordinary shallowness."
Eichmann was the least-expected thing of all: boring. I suspect that ten minutes with Saddam or Huntley would bore us all too. We must remember that evil is not something other, distant and magical. It is always potentially only a few days and a handful of bullets away. Eichmann's evil stemmed, Arendt explained, from "an inability to think from the standpoint of someone else." Huntley did not think of Holly and Jessica as human beings equal to him in their capacity to feel pain and love. Saddam saw Kurds as sub-human. Today, most people show the capacity to exclude somebody from the category of human. Our own alien hordes are many: asylum seekers, gypsies, paedophiles, prisoners. Arthur Miller said it best in his play After the Fall: "The terrible thing about Auschwitz isn't that it is beyond human understanding. It is that it is so easy to understand."Reuse content