Always Another Munich?

Political Evil
What It Is and How to Combat It
Alan Wolfe
Knopf, $27.95, 352 pp.

Alan Wolfe is a distinguished political scientist with a long interest in the nexus between morality and social policy. His newest book is an ambitious and important attempt to create a useful framework for deciding when to intervene to stop political violence by other state actors.

A liberal with roots in the Democratic left’s anticommunism (and anti-McCarthyism) of the 1950s and ’60s, Wolfe turned antiwar in the Vietnam era, was later a “post–Cold War liberal,” and he has since had “third thoughts” about the uses and misuses of military power.

He insists, for openers, on the existence of evil in the world, but distinguishes “political evil,” or evils imposed by the power of a state, as of far greater concern than evils perpetrated by depraved or deranged individuals, like the Columbine shootings. Political evils are usually rational and goal-oriented, and usually very destructive because of the resources available to the perpetrators. Wolfe posits four types of political evil: terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and “counterevil,” or tit-for-tat evils, like torturing terrorists because they routinely resort to torture. The task Wolfe sets himself is to make careful distinctions between his categories, to draw the policy implications from the distinctions, and to point out the bad policies that result from confusing or conflating the differences.


To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Charles R. Morris, a Commonweal columnist, is the author of The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown (Public Affairs), among other books, and is a fellow at the Century Foundation.