Staying with the theme of the catastrophic loss of life in Paris two nights ago, one set of comments has me worried. A few people – not just in the wake of November 13 but for some time now – have decided that groups such as the Islamic State are “death cults” and that members are inhuman or monsters. As such, they do not deserve to live. The Washington Post wrote an editorial about the need to face “evil” (see it here).
If we go back to the propaganda of WWI we saw a demonisation of the enemy on both sides of the conflict. I am more familiar with the Allied use of imagery but I know that the other parties availed themselves of the same tool. German soldiers were portrayed as hideous creatures bent on raping women and skewering babies. These “untermensch” – a term to have a different connotation twenty years later – could only be confronted with force and the West needed to step up to stop these unworldy beings.
The average German soldiers were no such thing of course – just average Joes thrust into a war they didn’t want and didn’t understand. Were there acts of brutality during the war? Absolutely, but these were likely caused in large part by ordinary men placed in extraordinary circumstances, trying to survive to the best of their abilities. Not by drooling ghouls.
I know that labeling the enemy as non-human is done all the time. Does it make it easier to goad men into killing their foe, an act that most people seem to shrink from? Maybe. I am sure there are more qualified people than me to weigh in on this question.
There is no question that IS engages in barbaric acts that stun us on account of the level of inhumanity: burning people alive, beheadings, throwing people off buildings, maybe even crucifixion. These crimes must be condemned to the highest degree and we must do everything in our power to prevent more from happening. But we gain nothing by reducing the organisation or its members to “evildoers”. Just as the vast majority of soldiers in our armies are not psychopaths (although there are some), nor are the vast majority who join terrorist groups (although there are some).
IS and other organisations are complex entities with complex structures. They carefully craft their images and goals in ways to appeal to others: that’s why people join. IS, for instance, goes to great lengths to present itself as a functioning state, with its own currency and tax system. It goes further by claiming to have re-established the Caliphate, whether or not this is valid is irrelevant – it works. It sees itself, and many others do too, as the only “true” Islamic state.
There are undoubtedly “evil” people in IS and other groups. But it is more complicated than that. The violent radicalisation underlying all this can neither be explained nor dismissed as “evil”. Resorting to this vocabulary does nothing to further our understanding nor does it provide any useful suggestions on how to deal with this phenomenon (we can’t just “kill them all” and “send them to the hell whence they emerged”).
Using charged language may soothe us and help us deal with what happened in Paris and what will unfortunately continue to happen in the weeks, months and years to come. But it does not lead to useful responses.