Terrorism and evil

In a statement of the obvious, Islamic State has taken barbarity to a new (recent) low.  There is no question that throwing homosexuals off apartment buildings, burning people alive, beheading prisoners and raping girls qualifies as reprehensible behaviour.  Not that we humans have never before engaged in these subhuman kinds of acts, but the frequency with which IS seems to revel in them, and the glee with which they advertise them, is particularly disturbing.  The fact that they are doing so in the 21st century, after we have supposedly become more “civilised” (a la Stephen Pinker – The Better Angels of our Nature), is puzzling: we thought we were beyond that kind of act, didn’t we?

By comparison, Al Qaeda was nice – sorta.  It was telling that the precursor to IS, Al Qaeda in Iraq, carried out violence to such an extent that AQ itself asked them to tone in down.  You know that when AQ thinks you are going too far that you have indeed crossed a line.

In light of these atrocities, the question remains: how do we classify them?  They are clearly crimes, but merely calling them offences does not seem adequate.  They are also acts of terrorism and acts of terror, and that seems a little more accurate and a little more descriptive of the shocking nature of violence involved, but may not go far enough.  To some, then, they are nothing less than evil.  But are they?

At this point I am heading into dangerous waters.  I am neither a philosopher nor a religious scholar and it strikes me that the concept of evil belongs to one or both of those disciplines.  And yet I will take a stab at this.  We generally reserve the word “evil” for those acts which are so unacceptable that they defy what it means to be human, as well as those that do such things.  Think of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, or Stalin’s forced starvation of Ukraine in the 1930s, and probably the Rwandan massacre of 1994.  All these resulted in hundreds of thousands and millions of casualties and were targeted at people based solely on ethnicity or religion.  They truly represent the worst of human capability.

So, is IS “evil”?  Its carnage does not begin to approach the totals of the massacres cited in the previous paragraph but do appear to be unsettlingly heinous.  Does it make sense to call them evil?

I thought about this when I read an op-ed piece in The Telegraph by Brian Masters on the difficulty in using brain science to understand why we occasionally carry out violent acts.  I have already written quite a bit about the unpredictability of violent extremism irrespective of our advances in psychology or neuroscience so I won’t belabour that point.  I do, however want to pick up on a section of Mr. Masters’ article – here’s a quote:

  • “…to use the word “evil” in this connection is itself an admission of defeat. It is an occult word, incapable of definition in the real world. In effect, it means “I don’t know.”

I think he is on to something here.   I don’t think we can speak of evil without making reference to religion for, after all, the concept sprang from organised religion, didn’t it?  I think that is what Mr. Masters means by “occult” although I wouldn’t describe all religion that way.  Nevertheless, can we extract the notion of evil from its religious box and reduce it to science?  Not yet, apparently, and it is far from clear whether we can ever do so.

But I have another more important objection to the use of the term evil to describe IS.  It is, simply, that calling IS and its members evil feeds into their narrative.  They present themselves as the vanguard against evil in the world (with us playing the role of the bad guy) and claim that it is our society and our ways of doing things that have to be defeated because they are the antithesis of good.  Do we really want to speak the same language as IS?

We struggle to understand why some people can engage in such unspeakable cruelty against their fellow humans.  If we dismiss these acts as evil, however, are we not failing to grasp what is really going on?  If we toss these guys into the bin of the dark side, can we ever hope to gain a better insight into the whys and hows of terrorism?  Surely resorting to religiously-charged language is a type of defeat as Mr. Masters put it.  In the absence of understanding do we want to resort to supernatural concepts?  That may have worked in the 13th century but we are no longer tied to pre-Enlightenment ideas, are we?

So let us condemn these vulgar acts and do what we can to put a stop to them, but let us not constrain ourselves by using unempirical vocabulary and ideas.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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