None Dare Call It Evil?

by Jonah Goldberg

Over at CNN.com James Dawes, director of the Program in Human Rights at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, takes me to task for suggesting that we should call ISIS evil.

Is ISIS evil?

The problem with that question is that the answer is as easy as it is useless. Yes, ISIS is evil and must be stopped. Saying so over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.

The flip side is that “evil” is also a word that stops us from thinking. There is only one good reason to denounce a group as evil — because you plan to injure them, and calling them evil makes it psychologically easier to do so. “Evil” is the most powerful word we have to prepare ourselves to kill other people comfortably.

There is no point in trying to understand evil because it is, in the most typical phrasing, “inhuman,” “senseless” or “beyond comprehension.” It is a fool’s quest to analyze the local realities and strategic imperatives of unthinking savages. There is something almost offensive about trying to understand such evil.

National Review’s Jonah Goldberg tried to shame those who are trying to think seriously about ISIS. In a recent tweet, he mocked the attempt to understand ISIS in its social and political context, suggesting that we should focus instead on one fact: “They’re evil. They do obviously evil things for evil ends.”

The fact is, there are few things more dangerous now than allowing ourselves to think that way.

Dawes gets just about everything wrong here — and in the rest of his essay. For starters I didn’t “mock the attempt to understand ISIS in its social and political context.” Rather, I mocked those who try to understand ISIS without acknowledging the most salient moral fact: They’re evil. Here’s my full tweet:

The rest of the piece is just a string of question begging assertions and strawmen wrapped in a lot of self-congratulatory intellectual preening about his willingness to do the serious thinking others won’t do. For instance:

Even if U.S. military force could effectively destroy ISIS, there will be similar groups waiting in the wings. If we are to have any hope of preventing the spread of extremist ideologies, we must do more than bomb the believers. We must understand them. We must be willing to continue thinking.

How is ISIS able to achieve the support it needs? What drives people into its ranks? What social pressures and needs, what political and regional vacuums, make it possible for a group like this to thrive? We can choose to answer these questions in two ways.

We can say they are evil people doing evil things for evil ends. Or we can do the hard work of understanding the context that made them, so that we can create a context that unmakes them.

Where to begin? First of all, the ideology driving ISIS is hardly a novel phenomenon requiring fresh inquiry. No one needs to hie to their dog-eared copy of the Koran to glean new understanding of what is driving these people. Indeed, it’s a bit outrageous to suggest that ISIS’s belief system is one deserving of that kind of respect. Second, who says that no one is thinking about the issues Dawes lays out? Every defense and Mid-East analyst I’ve read or talked to has asked the kinds of questions Dawes says we must consider. And guess what? After doing their due diligence, they’ve concluded ISIS needs to be destroyed. Heck, this is the consensus among the leaders of the “believers” Dawes says we must understand. Even the Saudi Grand Mufti says ISIS is Islam’s greatest enemy. Dawes seems to think that using force against ISIS is proof that we’ve failed to understand the complexity of the situation. The trouble with that kind of thinking — violence equals failure —  is that it’s non-falsifiable. Maybe the decision to use force reflects an appreciation of the complexity of the situation?  He refers to “political and regional vacuums” that helped ISIS thrive. Well, those vacuums — American withdrawal, the weak Iraqi government, the civil war in Syria — created a space for ISIS to fill. Understanding that fact isn’t necessarily an argument against force. As Charles Krauthammer notes today, the greatest advantage ISIS had was the perception they were unstoppable. 

But more fundamentally, I find it more than a little appalling to be lectured to about the evils of calling ISIS evil, particularly from a person who specializes in the issue of “human rights.” I understand that in our culture saying that “some people can’t be reasoned with” is seen as closed-minded. But sometimes you can be so open-minded your brain falls out. If the view of the human rights community is that it is simply useless to describe ISIS as evil, than what good is the human rights community?

Maybe I’m the fool here, but it just seems obvious to me that a group that crucifies its theological enemies, buries children alive, forces young girls into sexual slavery, and seeks global dominion isn’t a great candidate for reasonable conversation and compromise. Moreover understanding the “whys” behind their behavior strikes me as a moral dead end. 

Let us recall once again the story of British general Charles James Napier. When assigned to British-run India, he was informed that he just didn’t understand Indian customs. He couldn’t ban the practice of wife-burning, he was told, because it was an ancient and valued tradition in India. He said he understood and appreciated that. “This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”