The Common Good
May-June 2002

The Smell of Evil

by Appletree Rodden | May-June 2002

I was right with you in your "Report From Ground Zero" until I came to the sentence "If we did not see the face of evil on Sept. 11, we will never recognize it." 

I was right with you in your "Report From Ground Zero" (January-February 2002) until I came to the sentence "If we did not see the face of evil on Sept. 11, we will never recognize it." That broke my stride. Of course I know what you mean—but something about the metaphor "face of evil" seems wrong to me.

The idea of God's face is biblical, but that of evil? That evil might have a face suggests a personality behind it, an identity. Such a notion is consistent with the George W. Bush mathematics of evil as an entity that can be seen, recognized, and, therefore, an object for precision bombing—something that can even form "axes."

Recent research has shown that there is a particular area of the human brain committed to the task of recognizing faces; it's like a sixth sense. And in my experience, evil is seldom identifiable in this deep, visual kind of a way. Evil stinks. If you had said "If we did not smell the stench of evil on Sept. 11..." I think I would have felt no objection. A smell is harder to target than a face, and smells are not essentially human in the way that faces are.

Unfortunately, as children of Cain, it is not only in God that we "live and move and have our being" but also in an atmosphere of evil. That evil was manifest in Manhattan on Sept. 11 is clear; but it was also there on Sept. 10 and Sept. 12. Evil is there in every bomb we drop, be it smart or dumb; in every act of terrorism. Evil is in each of us, be we smart or dumb, "sleepers" for the Christ or Osama bin Laden.

"Combating evil" is a metaphor that we Christians must use with caution. It was part of the wisdom of our founding parents to make "crusades" unconstitutional. As we grieve, we Christians are called to maintain the foolishly naive faith that what the Lord requires of us has not changed since Micah (6:8): "Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God."

Appletree Rodden
Hamburg, Germany

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