National Security & Defense

Being Human

Jihadists kill from motives far more complex than biological necessity.

‘The only news I care about,” came the thundering AM-radio voice, “is the news that they have been put down like the barnyard animals they are!” He was referring to the brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, the murderous jihadists responsible for the murder of a dozen cartoonists, editors, police, and others at the offices of the Paris-based satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The two are indeed dead, as excellent a use as a few bullets were put to all week.

But the vitriolic denunciation on the radio, between traffic reports and ads for miracle weight-loss supplements, lingers in the ear.

“Barnyard animals”? Surely not.

Barnyard animals are sometimes dangerous, as anybody who has ever been kicked by a horse or stepped on by a cow knows, but they are useful. The quality of our diet would be radically diminished in the absence of cattle and chickens (whose emotional needs are of so much concern of late) and the world would be a good deal less beautiful without mankind’s strange relationship with the horse. Barnyard animals these two brothers certainly were not.

What about wild animals? Even as a metaphor, that falls short. The man-eating leopards that lurk in the forests of the night, the wolves that block the way to grandmother’s house, the toothy terrors of the deep — these we fear and fear rightly, and sometimes we do indeed have to put them down, without pity or mercy. But it is not hostility that causes the great white shark to take a bite out of the California surfer — only hunger and instinct. Bears may terrify us and rattlesnakes may awaken some ancient and atavistic fear, but we do not think that they are acting out of malice. The wolf doesn’t mean anything by it, no more than a virus does. They have no philosophy or ideology beyond that of Ted Hughes’s “Hawk, Roosting”:

I kill where I please because it is all mine.

There is no sophistry in my body:

My manners are tearing off heads —

. . . No arguments assert my right.

But still, the Parisian jihadists were described as: “murderous animals,” “Muslim terrorist animals,” “animals who want to kill,” etc. The sentiment is understandable: that these sorts represent a danger, a mindless threat that must be dealt with lethally and pitilessly.

Even a rabid dog inspires a little sympathy — who blames the dog? But killing the brothers Kouachi pitilessly is not enough. We cannot kill them, and those like them, indifferently. We kill them with purpose — with judgment. We do not kill them because they are animals; we kill them because they are human beings.

Pretending that they are something else lets them — and us — off too easy.

Those of us inclined to see the world mainly in economic terms can at some level understand these jihadists as rational actors, but we have no answer to the question of why the utility they seek to maximize consists of dead cartoonists, dead customers at Jewish markets, dead office workers in Manhattan, dead families at pizza shops, dead Muslims judged to be guilty of some deviation or lack of homicidal commitment, dead children when it is convenient. Our economic analysis, our psychological insights, our policy expertise, our sense of history and its arc — which does not, fine rhetoric notwithstanding, bend inevitably in the direction of justice — and everything else we have to throw at the problem breaks down once we arrive at the intractable fact of the two men and their motive. We might say “extremism,” “jihadist ideology,” or “Islam” as though that were the answer to our question instead of the beginning of our question.

The Ron Pauls of the world and most progressives believe that if we would just mind our own business and see to our own affairs, then we could more or less horse-trade our way to a peaceful modus vivendi – the Iranians, the takfiri, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Paris-born jihadists all must want something, if only we could figure out how to satisfy them. But there is no satisfying them – not in a world where a Jew lives, a Christian walks free, or a Hindu is his own master. Not while Oprah Winfrey is still awaiting her stoning and Neil Patrick Harris his public immolation.

Politics is necessarily part of the answer to the question of how we deal with this problem, but it is only a part of the answer, because the problem is older than politics and outside of it.

Practically all of those deep-seated fears that we call “phobias” when they become unmanageable have ancient origins. We do not commonly have phobias of magnum revolvers or nuclear weapons, but of snakes, spiders, heights, water, exposed places, lightning, dogs. We have had a long time to learn to be afraid of those things, which, from the long view of human history, were the most dangerous elements in the world until our most recent, remarkable sliver of time. And these are remarkable times, full of wonders.

But we have not come as far as we sometimes think.

Some forgotten early homo sapiens, the first great moral philosopher of our species, forever lost in the shadows of prehistory, took note of the fact that while wolves kill because they are hungry and bears kill because they are threatened, the human animal kills toward unknowable ends, from motives far more complex than biological necessity. Eventually, that first moral philosopher or one of his intellectual descendants came up with a word for that, for this inexplicable inclination that is not known to any wild animals, no matter how ravenous — but which is present only in men.

If only we could remember that word, and remember what it means.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent of National Review.

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