- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Great-great-grandson of Arthur Guinness, the Dublin brewer, Os Guinness was born in China during World War II, where his parents were medical missionaries.

Today, Mr. Guinness is a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum in McLean. His most recent book is “Unspeakable: Facing Up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror.” The following are excerpts of an interview:

Question: Why were you inspired to write this book?

Answer: The book grew out of discussions in New York on the challenges of suffering and evil raised by September 11. My wife and I actually had September 11 marked in our calendar for a discussion on evil, but the hotel bumped us to the 18th before the attack. When the terrorist attack hit, we considered putting it off, but decided to go ahead and had an amazing evening. One person there had got down from the 104th floor of the second tower. As the Wall Street banker said in introducing our discussion, “When I read these readings before September 11, I thought they were far too dark. When I read them again after September 11, they weren’t nearly dark enough.”

Q: How did your childhood in China affect your view on evil?

A: I had to think about evil and suffering from my very earliest days. My parents were married in China during the Japanese invasion in which more than 20 million were killed. When I was small, my family lived in Henan, the most populous province in China; and in the awful Henan famine in 1943, 5 million died in three months, including my two brothers. After World War II, we lived in Nanking, where the horrendous rape of Nanking had taken place. And I remember as an 8-year-old watching the climax of Mao Zedong’s revolution and the beginning of the reign of terror.

Q: How do you think Americans respond to evil today?

A: Sadly, 9/11 showed that many Americans have a view of evil that is weak, hesitant and confused — which is ironic because the U.S. has the most radical view of evil at its core, in the notion of the separation of powers because of the potential abuse of evil.

In the last 150 years, a number of ideas have flowed through America, weakening the traditional realism. For example, progressivism, the idea that we are all basically good and getting better. In the 1950s, there was a wave of Pollyannaism, and some Americans still plaster life with rainbows and smiley buttons. More recently, we have a generation of postmodernism, so that in some circles there is the bizarre idea that it’s worse to judge evil than it is to do evil. Put all such trends together and you can see why 9/11 caught America as unprepared morally and intellectually as it did militarily.

Q: Why do you think people are reluctant to use the infamous “E-word”?

A: If they use the word evil, they’re told they’re intolerant and judgmental. A feature of the way people really react to radical evil is that they suspend such relativizations and bluntly call it “absolutely evil.” And the same is true of intellectuals who acknowledge that absolute evil requires absolute judgment. I tell the story in the book of W.H. Auden who came to America in 1938. As an atheist, he was very reluctant to use words like “evil,” but when he saw the film of the siege of Poland, and the Nazi storm troopers bayoneting women and children, he realized instinctively, first, that we human beings are evil and, second, that such absolute evil required an absolute by which to judge it.

Q: How do people commonly interpret evil?

A: There are many people today who believe that all the world’s philosophies and faiths are roughly the same. If we were all to be nice enough and go deep enough, we would reach the common core and agree with each other. The trouble is that no one has ever found the common core. The fact is that there are huge differences between the philosophies and faiths, and the huge differences make a huge difference — not only for individuals, but for whole societies and civilizations. So my approach is to compare the answers to evil and suffering offered by the three great families of faith — the eastern, the secularist and the biblical. …

Q: What do you say to those today who say that religion itself is evil?

A: In some circles today, there is almost a litany that religion is the problem. Gore Vidal argued at Harvard in 1992 “the great unmentionable evil at the heart of our culture is monotheism.” Many said the same after 9/11. As Christopher Hitchens put it, “the real axis of evil” is not Iran, Iraq and North Korea, but Judaism, the Christian faith and Islam. This is simply factually wrong. On the one hand, in the last century alone more people were killed by secularist regimes, led by secularist intellectuals, and in the name of secularist ideologies than in all the Western persecutions combined. In fact, atheistic communism killed more than 100 million people alone, more than all the persecutions in Western history combined. On the other hand, monotheism is the most innovative and influential belief in all human history — for example, its significance for the rise of science and human rights. Secularists should be more honest as well as more humble when they make such charges.

Q: How does your book address personal or public answers to evil?

A: We need to answer why bad things happen to good people, but we also need to address the practical and public issues, too. Put differently, we have to take a practical stand against evil, too. At the heart of the Jewish and Christian positions, for instance, is the requirement to speak out and stand up whenever there is abuse and oppression. That’s the reason why no civilization in history or in today’s world has a recurring tradition of reforming like that of our Western civilization. …

Q: What do you say to those who say that after Auschwitz there cannot be a God?

A: In his posthumous book, “Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning,” Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl answers that those who say that were not actually there. More people in Auschwitz deepened or discovered faith in Auschwitz, he says, than lost it. A weak and inadequate faith is like a small breeze. All it takes is a small breeze to blow it out. A true and adequate faith, however, is like a strong fire. When a strong wind meets a strong fire, it will only fan it into an inextinguishable blaze. So it is for faith.

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