When my friend and IVN colleague David Yee wrote a column suggesting that the Founding Fathers might have taken issue with the practice of torturing enemies, he faced a fairly predictable barrage of well-scripted criticism. “George Washington was actually dealing with human-beings at the time,” wrote one particularly nonplussed commentator, “not rabid-inhuman-monsterous-beheaders.”
Let us bracket for a moment some of the most disturbing assumptions underlying such comment—that eighteenth-century warfare was more civilized than what is going on in the Middle East today (it wasn’t), or that we should tie the morality of our own decisions to the morality of our opponents (a really bad idea). Calling groups like ISIS “inhuman” is both inaccurate and potentially disastrous, as it will cause us to respond in ways that have no chance of working.
Oh, the conceit is common enough. It has become something of a commonplace to call ISIS “pure evil,” or “the epitome of sin,” or such. Even the UN has chimed in to call the actions of ISIS “inhumanity on an unimaginable scale.”
But we have to be careful. When we label something “pure evil,” we eliminate all of its complexity. And when we call someone “inhuman,” we imply that it is something so far removed from ourselves that we cannot even imagine ever being responsible for it. Not my species, not my problem.
Referring to ISIS as “inhuman” can be comforting. But these distancing mechanisms can also be dangerous because they de-contextualize and de-historicize evil in ways that don’t give us very good tools for dealing with it. They frame evil as something inhuman, otherworldly, and completely separate from us and from any historical context that we might have anything to do with. And this can cause us to seek theological solutions to historical problems, which is generally a bad idea.
We cannot in good conscience let humanity off that easily. If history tells us anything, it tells us that human beings can imagine, and commit, evil on both the smallest and the grandest of scales. I will not list the atrocities of the last hundred years here—the list is long and well known. Nor will I rehearse America’s own well-documented moral failings in these areas. But I will point out that one of the most beautiful passages in our Bible—the majestic 137th Psalm “By the Waters of Babylon”—ends with the thought of how happy the exiles will be when they can dash the heads of Babylonian children against the stones.
ISIS is evil, but their evil is neither “pure” nor “inhuman.” It is a very human evil and, like everything human, it is messy, chaotic, contingent, and firmly tied to a specific time and place. It is an evil born out of the collision of the worst elements of human nature and a specific set of historical circumstances that we are all, in some ways, a part of.
To confront this new evil in the MIddle East–and I believe that we must confront it–we will have to define it correctly. And that means giving up the comforting notion that it proceeds from a nature that is anything other than human.