If any Americans remained unconvinced that barbaric evil is at the cold-blooded heart of the terrorist group ISIS, their recent beheading of journalist James Foley made it graphically undeniable. The moral divide between ISIS and us is clearly marked. And yet there are those among us who still cannot bring themselves to use moral terminology to describe the enemy.
Michael J. Boyle for example, an associate professor of political science at La Salle University, contributed an op-ed to the New York Times Saturday on “the moral hazard” of using terms like “evil” and “cancer” to describe the terrorist group ISIS. Sure, he concedes, ISIS has committed thousands of gruesome human rights violations and war crimes, but Boyle wants to put the brakes on the “disturbing return of the moralistic language once used to describe Al Qaeda.”
“Condemning the black-clad, masked militants as purely ‘evil,’” he writes, “is seductive, for it conveys a moral clarity and separates ourselves and our tactics from the enemy and theirs.” How is this a problem? Moral clarity is an ideal state of affairs, especially in a world in which moral boundaries so frequently seem blurred. But Boyle believes that using judgments such as “nihilistic” to describe a group “tends to obscure the group’s strategic aims and preclude further analysis.” In other words, it discourages us from understanding the enemy.
I’m skeptical that Boyle himself understands ISIS’ strategic aims. He insists that ISIS “operates less like a revolutionary terrorist movement that wants to overturn the entire political order in the Middle East than a successful insurgent group that wants a seat at that table.” The notion that Islamic fundamentalists want only a seat at the political table is short-sighted, if not deluded. ISIS and their brethren absolutely want to overturn the political order of the world, not just the Middle East, and replace it with their own. This may seem comically unrealistic to us, but our opinion is irrelevant; all that matters is, ISIS believes it to be not only possible, but inevitable. They are executing their vision in a bloody swath across Iraq, and will continue until someone with the moral clarity and military power to stop them does so.
But this is another issue for Boyle. He is concerned that moralizing about the enemy is a slippery slope toward another Middle Eastern military quagmire:
The Obama administration needs to ensure that the just revulsion over Mr. Foley’s murder and ISIS’ other abuses does not lead us down an unplanned path toward open-ended conflict… The strategic drift produced by this moralistic language is already noticeable, as an air campaign first designed to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe has morphed into an effort to roll back, or even defeat, ISIS.
Isn’t rolling back and defeating ISIS a desirable outcome? In any case, whether we acknowledge it or not, we already are in an open-ended conflict with an enemy – Islamic fundamentalists – who are committed to a forever war. The way to prevent a quagmire is not to be tentative about military force, but to unleash hell and finish the job.
The New York Times wasn’t alone in its moral unease. A similar piece, “Should We Call ISIS ‘Evil,’” appeared on CNN, as National Review Online’s Jonah Goldberg pointed out. James Dawes, director of the Program in Human Rights at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, wagged his finger at Goldberg for tweeting that ISIS is obviously evil, and for the same reason as the Times’ Boyle: such simplistic terminology doesn’t do justice to the “complexities” of the ISIS phenomenon. Dawes too claims that calling someone evil “stops us from thinking”:
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…
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.
Inexplicably, Dawes seems to believe that understanding our enemies and identifying them as evil are mutually exclusive. Then he goes from the inexplicable to the offensive: “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.”
What a crock of academic moral equivalence. The reality is that we call ISIS evil not so Americans can have an expedient justification to go out and “kill other people comfortably,” but because ISIS beheads innocents, buries children alive, sells women into slavery, and massacres thousands. If we can’t objectively describe that as evil, then evil doesn’t exist. Perhaps for Dawes, it doesn’t.
There is no question that understanding the enemy is always vital. No one argues otherwise. But moral judgment is vital too. However, since 9/11 (and even before), the news media, academia, politicians, and even our own military establishment have done their best to deflect understanding and judgment of Islam and to explain away the evil done in its name as everything but Islamic. Islam is peace, they say. Jihad isn’t holy war, it’s inner struggle. Terrorism is blowback for our own oil-grubbing imperialism. The Ft. Hood massacre was workplace violence. Al Qaeda has hijacked and perverted Islam. Hamas are freedom fighters pushing back against Israeli occupation. ISIS is just an insurgent group seeking political legitimacy. And so on.
We will begin to win this forever war when remove these politically correct obstacles to understanding the enemy, and embrace the moral clarity to identify evil and eradicate it.
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