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Osama bin Laden: Evil or Not Evil?

Ron Rosenbaum, a columnist for Slate, is the author of the New York Times bestseller Explaining Hitler (paperback), and, most recently, How the End Begins: The Road To a Nuclear World War III. He also wrote the Kindle Single Rescuing Evil: What We Lose. Here, Rosenbaum previews journalist Christopher Hitchens' new, exclusive Kindle Single, The Enemy, on the death of Osama bin Laden:

The-enemy There is one particularly controversial word in Christopher Hitchens' provocative obit for Osama. One word that he goes out of the way to defend, a defense that deserves highlighting. The word: "evil."

I've wrestled with the problems this word causes. Why it's often wise to resist using it (when bad acts can be explained entirely by physical or neurological causes, or by brainwashing by evil ideology or theology). And why at times there may be no adequate substitute for its use.

We're talking here not about whether there are evil <acts>--everyone can agree child murder is an evil act---but about evil motivation, evil as a conscious (im)moral choice, when the evil-doer knows what he's doing is horribly "wrong" and does it anyway. Not when the evil-doer thinks what he's doing is good--when he's just making a mistake (because his troubled childhood or neurochemical imbalance made him susceptible to terrible but non-conscious error).

There have been all sorts of half-baked attempts to attribute the mass murder ordered by Osama bin Laden to something other than evil: dysfunctional parenting, misinterpretation of religious mandates that made him think he was doing good rather than evil in murdering 3,000 people that day. Some even defend him on those grounds: he was expressing the rage of the wretched of the earth against the privileged oppressors. Hitchens will have none of this. Osama embodied evil. Whatever that is.

To say this of someone is easy for some, but Hitchens' famous atheism sets the bar higher than, for example, it does for me as an agnostic. 

For an atheist, determinism rules. Moral decisions in effect are out of our hands, not really "decisions" at all, just the end-product of biochemical imbalances, defective cortical electrical signals.

At first Hitchens admits to wishing he could euphemize "that simplistic (but somehow indispensable) word evil." Then he stops resisting its indispensability, calling whatever motivated Osama a force that "absolutely deserves to be called evil."

I don't make this observation to suggest Hitchens is abandoning atheism, but perhaps it could be said (though he probably wouldn't say it) he parts company with the dimmer bulbs among the atheists, the rigid materialists, when he accedes to the existence of some non material "force" called evil.

I make the observation because of my admiration for Hitchens as a thinker (and even more as a writer). Someone whose nuances of thought deserve notice. I didn't see it before in what seemed like the absoluteness of his atheism. I look forward to his further thoughts on the subject. And hope he wins the battle to stay with us to share them.


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