In Wichita, Kan., as people absorb the news that an alleged serial killer lived among them for decades, some are using a word often associated with heinous crime: evil. Not everyone finds it an easy term to apply to a neighbor. One resident told a reporter that the man he attended church with - allegedly responsible for at least 10 murders since the 1970s - did not have "the face of evil."
Even before the Midwestern dogcatcher was arrested, America was experiencing a revival of the word evil in its public conversation. After Sept. 11, it became part of the political discourse ("axis of evil") and has occupied Americans struggling to make sense of why such events happen. Pop culture incorporates it into movies and TV shows, and books about evil now crowd store shelves, with more on the way.
"We're now using the word everywhere," says Frederick Schmidt, an associate professor of Christian spirituality at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "The events since 9/11 have brought it back into the center of American vocabulary, which is both a bad and a good thing."
Though use of the word "evil" is on the rise, Americans are finding it difficult to agree on what it means. Influenced by religious or cultural values, they tend to use it to describe both a supernatural force and something humans create. In some cases, the tag is pinned onto people; in others, to their actions. Many adopt the "I know it when I see it" definition.
As the label gets attached to everything from Major League Baseball's Yankees ("The Evil Empire") to terrorists, Americans are being challenged to probe the concept more deeply. Attempting to focus the discussion, some ethicists and writers argue that people need to stop putting the notion of evil at arm's length - of thinking that it applies only to others or to singular, horrific events. That tendency risks overlooking subtler forms of evil and of putting off looking for ways to avoid it.
"You need to ask why is it that we're so surprised when the alleged BTK killer [in Wichita] ends up being someone who lives among us and works in our church and is a Cub Scout leader," says Daryl Koehn, an ethicist at the University of St. Thomas in Houston and author of a new book, "The Nature of Evil." "We want evil to be monstrous," she says, "because if evil is monstrous, then by definition it doesn't look like us."
On some level, it's appropriate for people to be able to name evil when they see it, to help identify behaviors that are profoundly destructive, says Professor Schmidt, an ordained Episcopal priest. But he cautions that such labeling should be done carefully - and humbly.
"The difficulty is that that kind of language can obscure a more sophisticated analysis of people's behavior," he says. "To call people evil potentially dehumanizes them and therefore makes them potentially the object of punitive actions taken without regard to their humanity."
It also may shift the gaze away from considering society's own responsibility for events, and for their causes.
"For example," he says, "what are the roots of racism? What are the dynamics that cause someone to become a suicide bomber? What are the dynamics behind those kinds of activities; how do you address them?"
By focusing exclusively on high- profile "evil" events and people, society overlooks subtle yet potent ways that evil can appear - such as through thoughtlessness. That idea has been put forward by some who have examined the actions of people who contributed to the Holocaust. Philosopher Hannah Arendt called it the "banality of evil" - the controversial idea that someone holding no malice against Jews, for example, could nonetheless have contributed to their demise while merely trying to please his superiors.
"Particularly important is to have an analysis of evil that doesn't demonize evil actions, that doesn't say this is something that's in a realm that could never happen to me, or never happen to my neighbor," says Susan Neiman, author of "Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy," a book that includes analysis of Arendt's work. "You don't have to be a demonic sadist with great desire to kill, torture, and humiliate people. You can play lots of other roles and still be responsible for a great deal of evil," she says from Germany, where she is director of the Einstein Forum.
If people define evil primarily as figures like Al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden or Nazi Adolf Eichmann, for example, they might miss something. "While both men represent forms that evil can take, neither man exhausts them," Ms. Neiman writes in her book.
In a sign that labeling others as evil has hit a new high, some psychiatrists are debating whether to apply the term "evil" to serial killers, for example - something they once avoided. Columbia University psychiatrist and personality expert Michael Stone, for one, is working on a book in which he plans to profile criminals who society deems evil - who evoke reactions of horror, disgust, and alarm.
Some people contemplating the nature of evil say society would benefit from turning its gaze inward, to engage in more self-examination. By doing so, people might better be able to make sense of how serial killers can seemingly come out of nowhere.
One newspaper columnist, prompted by the Wichita case to ponder evil in its obvious and less obvious forms, wrote last week about someone she encountered in an airport: "Does it count as evil when a man is self-absorbed and rude and makes life unpleasant for those around him? I say yes."
As Professor Koehn sees it, rooting out evil is all about judging less and assuming more responsibility. She has come to see evil as suffering, as "the pain of frustration caused by our ignorance of what we need to be lastingly satisfied," she writes in her book. She makes no excuses for those who commit awful acts, but says that people who spend their time judging egregious acts or dwelling on spectacular historical horrors overlook the tie between "what people suffer and what they subsequently do."
"As a result," she adds, "violence appears to come out of nowhere."