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Why ISIS love to kill Attempts to rationalise evil let its barbaric perpetrators off the hook

Suspected ISIS fighters are detained by Kurdish forces (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Suspected ISIS fighters are detained by Kurdish forces (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)


April 13, 2021   5 mins

I used to think there was something demonically profound about Hannah Arendt’s diagnosis of Adolf Eichmann. He was “neither perverted nor sadistic
 but terribly and terrifyingly normal”; he epitomised the “banality of evil”. Eichmann, in effect, was a bespectacled gimp who you wouldn’t look twice at in the street.

Yet he had played an active role in an industrial-sized enterprise of human cruelty and malevolence. There was something deeply unnerving about this: the disproportion between the smallness of this man and the Himalayan magnitude of the Holocaust. It didn’t seem to add up.

As a criminologist, I have been trained to think that evil is a social category or label that dominant groups impose on less powerful “Others” – the marginalised. If there’s a “criminology of evil”, it’s a criminology of how modern states and their elaborate network of enforcers succeed in demonising people who can’t or won’t follow the rules of the system. According to this account, evil people aren’t really evil; they’re just the convenient victims of the “problematic” use of state power. They’re the symbolic scapegoats we invent to signal our virtue so that we can feel good and exorcise our demons.

Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann, while recognising his quotidian evil, readily fits in with this. Far from being a monster, Eichmann, in Arendt’s eyes, is a “thoughtless” Everyman. Even his motives, according to Arendt, were bland and boring, more to do with needy imperatives like pleasing superiors, career advancement and wanting to be liked.

But there’s another part of the story of human evil that Arendt and today’s criminologists cannot or do not want to confront. This is the part that has to do with the monstrousness of monstrous people. It’s the part that’s so squalid and viscerally disgusting that we can’t help but stare at it, shocked and dumbfounded by the scale of human wickedness grimly staring us in the face. It’s the stories that, as the renowned scholar William Ian Miller puts it, “sicken us in the telling, things for which there could be no plausible claim of right: rape, child abuse, torture, genocide, predatory murder and maiming”.

If there’s a genre to which these stories belong, it’s horror. And yet there’s no criminology of horror. Indeed, all of those sharp insights about “the banality of evil” quickly lose their edge the closer we venture toward that region of, to quote Miller again, “dark unbelievability”.

If, as I have, you’ve watched a lot of ISIS atrocity propaganda, or listened to the testimony of those who narrowly missed appearing in it, you’ll know all about dark unbelievability. It’s the sheer insanity of filming a toddler shoot a defenceless man, of filming a group of hostages being decapitated, of filming a man burned alive in a cage. It’s the sheer depravity of inventing ever more creative ways to torture and kill people because you think your fan-base will love it and your enemies hate it.

Granted, there was a method to ISIS’s madness. The group murdered people on camera — 2,375 in all, between January 2015 and June 2020 — because it wanted to terrify its enemies and inflame its supporters. And, like any terrorist group, it also wanted maximum exposure and publicity. But there was also an undeniably expressive quality to ISIS’s violence which can’t simply be reduced to cold means-ends logic. ISIS murdered not just with savage efficiency, but with hot exuberance and glee.

For a recent lecture on Trinidadian ISIS militants, I pulled out a particularly gruesome video that I planned to show. Uploaded to the internet in the summer of 2014, by which point ISIS had captured Mosul in Iraq and declared the formation of the caliphate, it shows a jihadi in military fatigues holding up a severed head.

“Hello, my name is John,” he says in a mock English accent, performing the role of ventriloquist. This is followed by howls of laughter, from both the militant and the person filming. “See, he doesn’t smile today,” the militant adds. “Right now John look like he died of natural causes,” a voice with a Trinidadian accent says off-camera. More riotous laughter.

These men are clearly enjoying themselves, which surely raises the spectre of a kind of evil that is anything but banal. Or does it?

A sanitised, sociological reading of the video would conclude that the laughter is an expression not of sadistic delight but of nervous energy; the men are laughing because they’re secretly horrified. They’re desensitised to killing and have been brutalised by war. It’s a way for these men to bond, and if they’re violent and thuggish it’s because they’re following the script of toxic masculinity. Indeed, the whole spectacle before us is determined by the situation, and not the predispositions, choices, desires or quirks of the men themselves. As the social psychologist Albert Bandura puts it: “Conducive social conditions rather than monstrous people… produce heinous deeds. Given appropriate social conditions, decent, ordinary people can be led to do extraordinarily cruel things.”

Let’s leave aside the question of whether the men in the video are “decent, ordinary people”; though I suspect that cutting a man’s head off and then laughing about it on camera is reason to doubt such a proposition. Instead, let’s probe the sly determinism inscribed in that  causal reference — “led” — in the above quotation from Bandura. Who or what led ISIS western militants to Syria? And who or what led them to cut off heads and laugh about it?

The typical sociological account of western ISIS militants would have it that everything but the agency of the militants themselves led them to go to Syria. Western imperialism led them. Slick ISIS videos led them. Their bruising experiences with the British security state led them. The Iraq war led them. Islamophobia led them. The caliphate-fantasy led them. Shadowy recruiters led them. Insecurity, identity-confusion, trauma, boredom — all of that somehow led them. And, then, once they got to Syria and Iraq, peer pressure, PTSD, fear, the need to belong — all of that led them to enslave people and commit terrible atrocities.

But none of this explains anything. It doesn’t explain why the so-called “Beatles” — the British ISIS beheading outfit — spent a lot of time taunting and degrading their victims prior to killing them. It doesn’t explain the insanity of the ISIS videos. It doesn’t explain the laughter of those Trinidadian ISIS militants. It doesn’t explain all the “useless violence”— as Primo Levi called it — that ISIS committed both on and off camera; the sort of violence that, as Levi explained, has no purpose other than creating pain.

More than twenty years ago, the political theorist C. Fred Alford brilliantly dissected the famous Stanley Milgram experiments that were carried out at Yale University in the 1960s. The subjects in the experiments, called “teachers”, think that they’re delivering shocks to a “learner”, who is actually in on the experiment with Milgram. The learner is a middle-aged man with a heart condition — or so Milgram informs the teacher. The teacher’s task is clear: he must flick a switch on the generator and deliver an electric shock to the learner when he fails to memorise word pairs. The shocks begin at 15 volts and go up to 450.

Alford concedes that the teachers do not appear to like their job: “They ask the experimenter not to go on, they talk about how worried they are about the learner. They smoke too much and sweat furiously
they complain, they hesitate
” Yet most deliver the electric shocks. “All they have to do
 is just say no, and mean it. Less than half do,” Alford writes.

Milgram interpreted this finding as evidence of “the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority”. But Alford doesn’t buy it, and is struck by a little discussed detail that recurred throughout the experiments: namely, the grotesque laughter, “the giggling fits at the shock generator”.

“What if these men are giggling in embarrassed pleasure at being given permission to inflict great pain and suffering on an innocent and vulnerable man?” Alford asks. “What if what the teachers really want, what they long for, is permission to hurt someone?” Milgram rejected this conclusion outright: the teachers in the experiment are slavish, not sadistic. But he presented no evidence for this view.

Whether Alford is right about the teachers’s laughter remains to be seen, but his broader psychoanalytic perspective, which recognises the agency of people who do evil and the pleasures they take from controlling others through violence, captures something Arendt missed in her account of evil as “banal”.

Extensive footage from the Milgram experiments can be viewed on YouTube and you can judge for yourself whether or not Alford was onto something. Or there are those dark recesses of the internet, stuffed with videos of horrors inflicted by people who, pace Arendt, are terrifyingly terrible: ISIS butchers, chainsaw-wielding Mexican cartel murderers, serial killers armed with screwdrivers and many more grotesque figures.

And therein lies the problem with Arendt’s account of Eichmann: she was so bewitched by the smallness of the man that, to this day, it dulls us to all the thoughtful malevolence that surrounds us, should we dare to look at it and see it for what it really is.


Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.


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Vikram Sharma
Vikram Sharma
3 years ago

Hannah Arendt was very keen to prove her, and at that time really popular concept of The Authoritarian Mind. The Left has had a field day with it- blaming men, fathers, discipline, authority, concepts of duty and honour- all of these portrayed as the wickedness of the system. Combined with the idea that there for the grace of God go I (Tolstoy) and the now discredited Milligram experiments, suddenly everything is environmentally determined. Poof….no personal responsibility.
Eichmann was evil, as are many others. Monsters do exist. We are not equally capable of evil; morality and empathy are human attributes which some really lack. As long as we have a ‘systems’ or ‘institutional’ explanation for individual evil, it will continue to exist.
Perhaps the line from the Usual Suspects is true: the greatest trick the devil ever played was to convince people he did not exist.

Alex Wilkinson
Alex Wilkinson
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

The Left know what they are doing, don’t they. They must know the excuses they are making – the wilful blinkers they choose – and why they do it. Or don’t they?

Last edited 3 years ago by Alex Wilkinson
Vikram Sharma
Vikram Sharma
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Wilkinson

Ive written here earlier that the Left comprises three distinct groups: the naive, the foolish and the sinister. It is the last of these who are the dangers the first two groups are useful idiots.

Robert Malcolm
Robert Malcolm
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

You can write anything you like, but it doesn’t make it true.
Not indeed is there such a group as ‘The Left’ – merely a wide range of people who broadly believe that railways are better in public ownership, hospitals free at point of need, and so on.

Pieter Schoombee
Pieter Schoombee
3 years ago
Reply to  Robert Malcolm

Yep, and now the railways are gone.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
3 years ago
Reply to  Robert Malcolm

Sounds like you just defined your own rather narrow range of people subscribing to uncontroversial views. No doubt “the left” encompasses cuddly social democrats, just as “the right” includes people who just think family is important or whatever. Doesn’t mean both tendencies can’t go to darker places…

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
3 years ago
Reply to  Robert Malcolm

That’s the Old Left you’re describing, the one that believed in either Socialism or else a strong welfare state. The New Left is all about identity politics, and indeed has considerable contempt for the white working class. I’m not sure its support for the working classes of other races is that rock-solid either.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

I don’t understand why left or right is relevant. Please could you explain.

Bruce Metzger
Bruce Metzger
2 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

Very well said. Quotable.

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago

Anyone who has ever watched small children trying to kick a pigeon or throw stones at a cat will know that there is a surprising large proportion of human beings who enjoy inflicting pain and fear on other living beings. If those children are not reprimanded by an adult and told “stop that, how would you like it if someone did that to you?” they don’t learn that this is wrong. It’s a big step from that to ISIS style atrocities, but that’s where the journey starts. Noticeably, sometimes it’s other children that tell them to stop… So as a species we aren’t all bad. But theres no getting away from the fact that some people are just born sadistic.

Last edited 3 years ago by Mike Boosh
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

The pigeons example is interesting. I can remember being told to desist by my parents when chasing/scaring pigeons (it would never have occurred to me to throw stones at a cat). However, I often see small children take great delight in harassing pigeons, unrestrained by their parents.

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

To be fair, while I’ve seen lots of kids chasing pigeons I’ve only ever seen 1 throwing a stone at a cat. The childs parents were oblivious, and the cat was smart enough to scarper before the little monster managed to improve his aim.

William Murphy
William Murphy
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

Around 2000, some kids on a local council estate set fire to a tree. When the fire brigade arrived, they threw stones at the firemen. Not for very long, given the size of firemen and those large axes they carry.

parkalot01
parkalot01
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

This. Evolution has placed different species at different spots on the evolutionary ladder. Inherent urges require the damping effects of civilization for society to survive. The ones that ignore it have to exert will to overcome social restraints to see just how far they can take those primal urges. It becomes a contest, what is stronger, society or the individual?

David George
David George
3 years ago

We have a nature—an ethical nature. Everyone experiences their own proof of that, in the ability to escape from the sting of their conscience when they do what they should not, or fail to do what they should. And I became convinced, for those and other reasons, that the world of human experience has a moral structure that cannot be evaded; a moral structure that is in fact our home. And this was not because I became convinced of the existence of the Good, but because reading history, psychologically—and reading it as a perpetrator and not a victim or, even more unlikely, a hero— had convinced me that Evil was real, and that it dwelt in the heart. 

 

And as I studied as deeply as I could manage, I found that the wisdom of the Biblical stories, for example, appeared truly bottomless. No matter how much time I spent assessing or analyzing the stunningly brief accounts in Genesis I always learned more—and more, and more—without any indication that I had come close to the bottom. This came—and still comes—as a tremendous surprise to me. It was not in the least what I expected and, although I have spend three decades trying to explain and understand it, I believe that I am still far from an acceptable understanding. It’s partly because the Biblical stories are all connected to one another, so that the Bible is, in some sense, the world’s first hyperlinked (and thoroughly hyperlinked) text. It’s partly because those foundational stories are woven into the great art and literature that has emerged since the dawn of the Christian era, as well as into the morality that structures the manner in which we perceive and respond to the world. And I began to see that the stories that have grounded our culture had to be revitalized and their meanings made conscious, or we would literally lose our minds, in the same way that people deprived of their equally mysterious private dreams inevitably lose theirs. 
Jordan Peterson from Beyond Order.

Last edited 3 years ago by David George
Bertie B
Bertie B
3 years ago
Reply to  David George

Being as these aren’t your own words I’m not sure what you are trying to say.
Even the quote above contains the line:

No matter how much time I spent assessing or analyzing the stunningly brief accounts in Genesis I always learned more

In a nut shell the bibal says what you want it to say, what other people tell you it says, and depending on how you read it and which bits you read and how you interpret them it can tell you pretty much what ever you want.
The Quran has the same problem – which is why people can use it as guidence for living just and decent lives – where as others can use it to justify violence and sadism.
Although now seen in a generally bad light Friedrich Nietzsche, went a long way towards identifing a way forward (at least the first steps) out of relying on non-specific ancient retelling of even older stories that amount to little more than the moral behaviour shown by a pack of wolves.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Bertie B

if the bible and koran have the same problem, then why do readers of the former almost never engage in wanton violence over its teachings? Believers of the latter have no such restraint. But, sure; they are totally the same things.

Bertie B
Bertie B
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I’m not convinced that you are on very solid ground if you are claiming people have never commited wanton violence in the name of Christianity. If you want to argue with me that the Bible is good and the Quaran bad -then you have completly missed my point.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Bertie B

I didn’t say never; I asked where the people who are killing in its name are now. It’s not hard to find those who use the koran to justify murder and mayhem.

Bertie B
Bertie B
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Well you did say never – but I take your point that in more recent times there is an obvious difference. But my central point remains – the text of the Bible hasn’t changed since people were using it to justify violence. What has changed is the people who are reading it, they are interpreting it differently – sort of emphasising my point that you can read what you like in both text.

Simon Cooper
Simon Cooper
3 years ago
Reply to  Bertie B

I think the key difference is that people who used Christianity and the bible to justify their violence were probably using it to further personal/political/national goals. The problem with having a state religion or no separation between church and state. Whereas those who are participating in religious violence in the context of islam, really believe they are doing something their faith demands. Although there will always be a degree of crossover the principle stands.
People who draw parallels between the two probably have no understanding of what real faith is all about and what the bible/koran/hadith actually teach.

Tony Nunn
Tony Nunn
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

True, readers of the Bible seldom engage in wanton violence nowadays, but it’s not many centuries since Christians were burning other Christians at the stake for holding the wrong theology. Most of us are guilty of cognitive dissonance at times, but I struggle to comprehend how people like the Spanish Inquisition could reconcile a propensity for torture and murder with following the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Nunn

Nowadays was the impetus of my reply. The Inquisition is not happening today. But groups like ISIS are in the here and now, and they kill more Muslims than anyone else. If context is to be abandoned, then this is an entirely different discussion. And pointing to the bad acts of Christians past hardly excuses the ongoing bad acts of Muslims now.

Tony Nunn
Tony Nunn
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Indeed, that was certainly not my intention.

Derek M
Derek M
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

It’s also worth pointing out that at those times in the past when Christians were carrying out such acts in the name of religion so were Muslims, it’s just that a significant number of Muslims are still doing it in the name of their religion

Michael Cowling
Michael Cowling
3 years ago
Reply to  Derek M

Not quite. The Christians burned the library in Alexandria and killed a number of people associated to it before there were any Muslims at all.

Andrew Salkeld
Andrew Salkeld
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Nunn

I think we have forgotten an important ingredient when talking about the Inquisition. Not long ago in a world without modern and other pleasurable diversions and filled with many forms of unpleasantness, and exizting with the constant threat of death from disease or childbirth, the afterlife was constantly on people’s minds. Achieving the desirable afterlife of rebirth or sitting beside Jesus and the saints or enjoying endless paradise were all dependent upon what you believed and how you lived your life on earth. Those who exempted themselves from current orthodoxy on these matters had to be put to death for fear of the contagion spreading and thereby putting other souls at risk of plunging into hell. Hence the inquisition and many other such attempts to wipe out heresy. More of a lifesaving surgical operation or averting a pandemic than a wilful murdering of opponents.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Salkeld

You are right that salvation depended on what you believed (faith) but according to the Bible it does not depend on works (except as a by-product of beliefs).

John Wilkes
John Wilkes
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Nunn

It is possible that the Enlightenment happening in predominantly Christian countries largely put an end to this kind of wanton violence. Whilst many or even most people in the West retain Christian spirituality, it is rare to find many who take the Bible literally. This is less true in the Islamic world (though that was not always the case).

Simon Cooper
Simon Cooper
3 years ago
Reply to  John Wilkes

I wonder if there is a link between people committing atrocities and people who take the bible literally?
Anyone who believes that the son of a carpenter from Nazareth died and then came back to life, oh and who was also God, shouldn’t have much trouble believing the rest of it.
I would say the propensity to commit atrocities using the Bible as the basis is always going to be based in an incorrect interpretation of it.
Although there is always the vagaries of alternative interpretations, it’s reasonably difficult to misinterpret: Love your enemies and bless those who curse you. Practicing it is however much harder, but if done eliminates the possibility of genocide.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Cooper

People who believe that the son of a carpenter died and came back to life and was also God, have to come to a belief in God in the first place. Surely once a person believes in God they look at the various religious faiths and decide which one is true. (Their teachings tend to be mutually exclusive).
I agree with your comments on interpretation.
Have you read Tom HOlland’s Dominion or Nabeel Qureshi’s ‘Answering Jihad’? Both address this question.

James Rowlands
James Rowlands
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Nunn

Therefore by your logic they were not Christians. They were simply using the Bible for political gain

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
3 years ago
Reply to  Bertie B

Wolves do display moral behaviour, as do most social animals. Not towards their dinner, of course, but towards each other.

David George
David George
3 years ago
Reply to  Bertie B

Thanks for the reply Bertie.
Yes the Bible is a complex and, to some extent contradictory, document and I’m no expert. Nevertheless it is the codified foundation of our Western morality whether we like it (or are even aware of it) or not. Becoming unmoored from that foundation is a dangerous and possibly fatal place to be, individually and collectively. The problem of creating our own values, without an acknowledgement of an incorruptible, transcendent, non material reality, as promoted by Nietzsche, are becoming increasingly apparent don’t you think? Or as G K Chesterton would have it: When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.

“I became convinced some thirty years previously that the warnings of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had to be taken seriously: that the death of God, which he announced in the late nineteenth century, threatened to undermine everything of value in the civilization of the West. Nietzsche believed that Man would have to become God, in a sense, as a consequence of the collapse of Christian belief: would have to forge his own values and thereby find his place in a cosmos now devoid of divine transcendent purpose.

 

But, concurrently, I read the psychoanalysts, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and the great biological psychologists of the late 20th century, and came to know in a terrifying manner that we were not masters in our own houses, and could not, in consequence, consciously conjure forth the spirit needed to replace what we had lost with the degeneration of institutional Christianity.” JBP

Last edited 3 years ago by David George
Bertie B
Bertie B
3 years ago
Reply to  David George

The trouble with relying on the bible for moral guidence is that it comes witha lot of baggage. Yes there are choice readings of the Bible that can lead you to a moral outlook, but there are also choice readings that could lead you the other way.
Nietzsche’s main point was that if you stop believing in god (which many people have) then it makes no sense to assume that the morals in any regligious text are ordained from a higher power. The only place those guidence notes can come from is other people – a long time ago. With that you have to accept that moral code is something we make up as we go along, and the core of it is founded in the evolutionary benefit of cooperation – hence my comment about wolves, as another comentator says – they do display ‘moral’ behaviour, those social animals that didn;t arn’t around anymore.
If you try to force people to follow a moral code from a religious text about a god they don’t believe in they will start to ask questions, why is it wrong to kill? – “because the bible says so, and its the word of god” carries less than no weight with people who will dismiss that as the ramblings of someone with (in Nietzsche’s words) “slave morality”

Andrew Salkeld
Andrew Salkeld
3 years ago
Reply to  David George

I like this observation from Jordan Peterson. In his first book Maps of Meaning, he makes a point that turned my world inside out. He says that aside from limbic brain reaction to the possibility of immediate pain or pleasure, we see what we believe to be real through the lenses we have adopted or adapted from our society and upbringing or through the mists of the myths and teachings that have embraced us. We can only operate through these constructed lenses. Shared lenses lead to shared interpretation and shared reactions, and this makes us feel safe. Greek mythology, biblical stories, tales of the Buddah all provide the lenses we need to understand reality. And as for cognitative dissonance – acknowledgement of this as a beneficial feature of mind and life marks the truly developed mind. Yes we can embrace our own pro immigration and anti immigration feelings, our own anti abortion and pro choice convictions and our own hetero and homosexual drives. This does not make us wishy-washy. It makes us grown up.

George Bruce
George Bruce
3 years ago

As a criminologist, I have been trained to think that evil is a social category or label that dominant groups impose on less powerful “Others” – the marginalised.

That is a surprising statement if true. Trained to think that way! It makes criminology sound more like an ideology than an objective academic discipline pursuing the truth.
It is also a bizarre use and definition of the word evil. Ordinary and even disadvantaged people use the word evil too, and quite often they are using it about more power people who are not marginalised.

George Bruce
George Bruce
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

Sorry,
about more powerful people

Vikram Sharma
Vikram Sharma
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

Most social ‘sciences’ are ideologies; no more science in them than stamp collecting. They wear a flimsy cloak of maths and ‘sciencey’ language to pretend. Lacan famously wrote about p***s and the square root of minus one . Alain Sokal has taken most of these brilliantly apart.

Last edited 3 years ago by Vikram Sharma
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

Then it seems to me that you have been very badly trained, along with all the other ‘ologists’ that afflict us. This goes a long way to explaining the dismal state of things.

George Bruce
George Bruce
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Bit of a generalisation – I do not think geologists, biologists, ornithologists or even campanologists are very responsible for the state of things.

Kate S
Kate S
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

I’m glad you mentioned it because that statement really struck me as quite sinister too. It appeared to be admitting that academics approach certain analysis with a view that minority groups are inherently ‘good’ and majority groups are inherently ‘evil’ – this strikes me not only as completely absurd, but very dangerous.
Could these kinds of sloppy, non-evidence based academic theories be the reason why so much hate is being directed at certain categories (e.g. white men) at the moment?

Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
3 years ago

I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Evil certainly exists: but how do we identify it? We have no qualms in identifying certain actions as evil: genocide, rape, etc. Then comes the questions of personal agency. Psychopaths and sociopaths win the tears of others by arguing they didn’t choose to be like this. But not every evildoer is a psycho / sociopath.
A potential problem is ‘blame the person, not the ideology’ logic. If we hyper focus on individual evil, then we dismiss the towering effect of ideology and circumstance. This is certainly true when one considers the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Everyone who partook in it had diverse psychologies and personalities. Same for the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide. I strongly suggest everyone reads the book ‘Ordinary Men’ by Christopher Browning. It’s fantastic.
I often hear from communists ‘you can have communism without tyranny.’ They point to the evils of the Soviet Union, and argue they occured not due to communism, but because of something else.
This is an unsatisfying answer, because it ignores any environmental or social factor. Psychology matters, of course.
What helped my understanding of good versus evil was Solzhenitsyn.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
All my criticisms aside, the author is bang-on correct about how people interpret Ardent especially in the context of ‘authority.’ Power structures do not explain all of human behaviour, even at its best or worst.

Bertie B
Bertie B
3 years ago

You seem to be working from the position that there is an immutable list of evil acts.
Does any person think that they are doing evil, and yet continue to do it?
Yes – some do, I know – some get a sadistic pleasure out of it, some have no empathy and so don’t think in the same terms as most others. But most people who commit evil acts have self justified them, they claim they are necessary, or a justified means to an end.
If one person can justify and claim it is not evil, then what if a group can, what if everyone justified it.
What I’m trying to say is that there is no concept of evil that can exist out of context. Killing a random person in the street is evil, accidentally killing a random person (collateral damage) during a legitimate military operation to prevent the death or torture of many others is much more of a grey area.
Acts are not as important as Reasons and Consequences, and from your example above its quite hard to find a process of reasoning that could find any justification for rape, but genocide, although far more heinous, can (and has been) presented as justified many times.

Last edited 3 years ago by Bertie B
Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
3 years ago
Reply to  Bertie B

Well, justifications don’t take away from the inherit evil in the act. But it’s easy to get into ‘evil is a matter of opinion’ or ‘what’s evil to one person isn’t to another.’ Any moron can justify their actions.
People justify rape mostly by downplaying it (“oh, it wasn’t that bad”) or comparing it to another evil. The issue with focusing on reasons is that it doesn’t make an act less harmful. Sexual abuse of minors is evil not because of a pedophile’s reasoning, but because of the harm done to the child. However, reasons are relevant, but not as important as the acts themselves.

Bertie B
Bertie B
3 years ago

I think we can agree that sexual violence – particularly against children is harmful, its not a contentious area, and as such its not very useful as a debating topic.
Focusing on reasons and censequences allows you to determin if an act is more or less harmful than not acting, it allows you compare one act with another.
Outside of context you are in danger of projecting your views onto others, declaring them evil, when in fact they might be working under a different rule set to yourself. I’m sure that many people wouldn’t consider eating meat as evil, but in the future it could well be considered so. Even if you do consider meat eating evil, is it still evil if a lion does it – or a child that hasn’t the capacity to make moral choices themselves – or an adult who also lacks capacity?
I’m not trying to diminish peoples responsibility to act in a moral way – there are things currently in society that aren’t considered evil (and actually celebrated – bull fighting, the grand national), but which personally I take a very dim view of.

Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
3 years ago
Reply to  Bertie B

Yes, people will disagree with my moral claims or standards. You are correct there is a subjective element. But they are still worthy to pursue, and necessary to a functioning society. Searching for truths in morality is like searching for it in art: just because it’s subjective, doesn’t mean it should be neglected or that it’s irrelevant. People will disagree with me, but that won’t change my personal feelings and thoughts towards my own convictions.
I’m unsure the merits of motive based reasoning. Many people do ‘good’ but are selfish. Likewise, someone can have okay to good intentions, but still commit great evil. As I said, intentions can matter. But that doesn’t stop the participation in evil. Because of this, you can use motives / reasoning as a way to understand evil, but it would be limited.
It’s not that I’m opposing everything you are arguing. But I’m warning of potential limitations with comprehension of evil.
Edit: In my original post, I used the term ‘we.’ Please note I was making a general, broad statement about most of the population. Not saying it applies to everyone 🙂

Last edited 3 years ago by Madeleine Jones
nigel roberts
nigel roberts
3 years ago

Unfortunately the Left today identifies “whiteness” as the unambiguous and immutable source of all evil and is setting out to eradicate it.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  nigel roberts

What a broad generalisation that makes it sound as if you know few people on ‘the left’.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
3 years ago

very well said

Stan Konwiser
Stan Konwiser
3 years ago

This article misses a huge point regarding the relationship between the evil-doer and the victim. The victim has been otherized and dehumanized by the culture embraced by the torturer. The Nazis spent years demonizing and dehumanizing Jews and other non-arians before implementing the Final Solution. The fundamentalist Muslim sects draw imagined conclusions from the Koran that infidels do not deserve to live.

Thus the horrific actions are rationalized by the perpetrators as part of their duty to the ‘cause’.

The cancel culture capacity of the internet has replicated this rationalization in a less visceral way. While less overtly violent, it carries a similar pattern of otherwise caring people exacting extreme damage to someone deemed by their culture to deserve the worst possible consequence.

History does not specifically repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Tom Fox
Tom Fox
3 years ago

As I understand what Eichmann did, the idea that he delighted in the pleasure of killing falls down since he did not actually do the killing. He was certainly hideously unable to empathise with the thousands of victims his bureaucratic endeavours sent to a horrific end. This does not absolve him of his absolute responsibility for what he did, I just question the idea that he derived sadistic enjoyment from what he did.
People – a lot of people are capable of acting like monsters when the societal restraints are removed and an authority figure grants permission or orders monstrous acts. Genocide happens pretty much all over the planet when law and order break down and the right tribal motives come to the fore. It is happening right now. Sometimes it is dealt by missiles and the starving of ‘enemy’ populations in the context of warfare, but often, it is close up and personal like in Sierra Leon or Rwanda, mid twentieth century Europe, or Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and countless other places.

Last edited 3 years ago by Tom Fox
hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
3 years ago

Gosh, it looks like there is nothing that Critical theory hasn’t got its hands on. The blank slate madness continues in every field seemingly unabated.

VĂłreios ParatiritĂ­s
VĂłreios ParatiritĂ­s
3 years ago

Islam has low socio cultural barriers to religious genocide. This is the verdict of history. When a social, political or economic crisis occurs in an Islamic controlled space with religious minorities, there are cultural and theological incentives for Islamic leaders in the crisis zone to organize local or national massacres.
A rigorous academic study has just been published on this by Harvard University Press, written by Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi.
https://www.amazon.com/Thirty-Year-Genocide-Destruction-Christian-Minorities/dp/067491645X/ref=sr_1_1?crid=NSVLGT058A3S&dchild=1&keywords=the+thirty+year+genocide&qid=1618324771&s=books&sprefix=the+thrty+year+genoci%2Cstripbooks%2C169&sr=1-1
We need to address this openly and honestly with Islamic leaders in the West. The point is not to shame but to unearth the theology that drives this violence and discuss how Western lands and people can live in safety and security with their Muslim neighbours.

Sheryl Rhodes
Sheryl Rhodes
3 years ago

Just read an article discussing Arendt and her evaluation of Eichmann. The author thinks that Arendt had a pre-determined view that led her to describe Eichmann’s actions as banal.
However, that seems to be a very limited view of Eichmann, who worked hard to present himself as a boring bureaucrat by the time of his trial. In actuality, there is plenty of historical evidence that he was fiendishly committed to the cause of eliminating Jews, even to the point of disobeying orders to redirect resources away from slaughtering Hungarian Jews and instead to fighting the actual war.

Last edited 3 years ago by Sheryl Rhodes
Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
3 years ago

We’ve been studying violent societies, groups and the like for quite some time now. One thing we have learned is that, in their own societies, the male perpetrators of heinous acts are not marginalised. They are top dogs, the best that their societies can offer. Their mothers are bursting with pride in their sons and the girls’ auxiliaries are lining up to marry and have sex with such people.
Of course the people are individually responsible for their actions, and likewise if they were better integrated and accepted into the larger world picture where such actions are seen as abhorrent they might not pick this violent path of self-actualisation and status seeking. But when it comes time to indict a society for the barbaric behaviour of some, the place to start is not with ‘Western Society at Large’ but the actual, criminal and violent societies that these people grow up in or choose to join.
William Ian Miller is mistaken when he categorises some acts as: “things for which there could be no plausible claim of right: rape, child abuse, torture, genocide, predatory murder and maiming” — all of these things have been seen as right, indeed profoundly moral and virtuous, again and again and again in ultraviolent communities and societies. This is the whole reason why just executing the perpetrators when you find them does not work — the societies just generate more of them, effortlessly.
You have to go after the whole society, not just their active violent elements, which is why we need the concept of criminal conspiracies and racketeering in the first place. This is always a difficult piece of legislation to write — indeed it may be impossible to write one that cannot also be used in a ‘guilt by association’ way to imprison the wrong people who merely have the misfortune to grow up in a family with a lot of bad actors.
I am not sure why this is ‘bash Hannah Arendt’ week, but I think that discovering that evil is perpetrated by people who are ‘terrifyingly normal’ when you were expecting to find serious perversion, charisma, passion and sadism is a very useful finding. One can argue that Eichmann was less normal that Arendt thought, and that he managed to put one over on her, but there was no shortage of people which who would fit her thesis exactly in Nazi Germany. Another finding was that a large bureaucracy lets people who are responsible for, for instance, making the trains run more efficiently, compartmentalise their thinking so they do not get around to facing what the trains were being used for.
But often this is not needed. The Nazis, like ISIS, liked to document what they were doing. If YouTube had been in existence at the time, they’d have used it. They were proud of what they were doing. They thought it was good. If you immediately grab ‘but nobody could believe this’ off the shelf, when faced with horror you will never understand what is going on.
This is why exercises in finding out why people could believe such horrid things were good are mostly a waste of time (unless you are engaged in the very practical problem of finding out who is doing the recruiting when somebody is radicalised). We really don’t need a reason for good people to do good things or for people who enjoy something to do what they enjoy. By insisting that these people must being doing things they know are evil, and find necessary though unpleasant we are only indulging in moral whack-a-mole. Pick some reason, when that doesn’t hold up find another one.

Last edited 3 years ago by Laura Creighton
Derek M
Derek M
3 years ago

I find it odd that the author can write an entire article about the motivations of ISIS killers without once mentioning the ideology behind it. It’s in the name; Islamic State. No serious historian would write about the Holocaust without mentioning Nazism, but then perhaps criminology like a lot of social ‘science’ is mainly bunkum. Or perhaps the author just didn’t want to be accused of ‘Islamophobia’, I guess that’s the kiss of death in modern academia (literally in some cases).

jonathan carter-meggs
jonathan carter-meggs
3 years ago

Very interesting, if scary, prospect, that some humans (how many) actually enjoy sadistic activity. When I read about stuff on social media I can believe this is true even for “ordinary” people. I do hope that Pandora’s box is not lying on its side with the lid open!!

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
3 years ago

“As a criminologist, I have been trained to think that evil is a social category or label that dominant groups impose on less powerful “Others” – the marginalised.”
This is surprising. I would much rather have had a dissection of the training that appears to incorporate notions of dominance and oppression via the use of power. Is it influenced by a postmodern bent?
“… the thoughtful malevolence that surrounds us, should we dare to look at it and see it for what it really is…”.
Jordan Peterson dared to look at it and has spent his lecturing time discussing it.

Anna Clare Bryson
Anna Clare Bryson
3 years ago

Hannah Arendt’s characterisation of Eichmann – necessary for her general theory of the banality of evil – has been persuasively dismantled by later, thorough biographies. Eichmann was an extremely enthusiastic Nazi activist and ideologue. He was not a little grey office bloke just obeying orders – that was simply the persona that he adopted at his trial, for pretty obvious reasons of self-interest.

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago

The older I get the more I understand that there cannot be a rational or realistic explanation of human behaviour that doesn’t take account of original sin.

Geoff H
Geoff H
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

The original sin as I read it was disobeying God’s direct commandment. We are still being disobedient and are still in trouble. It all boils down to not wanting to do what God wants, but what we want. To help with the dissonance, we remove God, and by doing so remove any restraint we might have had. And replacing God with say, evolution, we move even further away from any restraint (were there any left), because there is now no authority to call out evil acts – who has the right and on what authority, to call out another for killing someone? If we are all in the race for survival of the fittest, it is anything goes to reach the top of the pile, no holds barred. Nothing upsets anything, or anyone with this mindset, it’s all part of the great onward march to whatever it is (I have no idea what it could be), which is why we can spend ÂŁ100,000 to save one very premature baby, and at the same spend ten times that amount to bomb men, women, children and babies – premature or otherwise and not see a problem with the picture. And of course, using drones and such, you don’t even have to get up close and personal to do it. War on terror, co-lateral damage, keeping you safe in your beds, hard but necessary, WMD – 45 minutes all easily explains it away. So that’s all right then.
If we brought God back and obeyed just one command – to love your neighbour as yourself – we’d clear this mess up overnight. But, of course we don’t want to do that – yikes! You know, I kinda like things as they are, my big house, big car, my big tv and all that – talking of TV is Eastenders on tonight and there’s a great slasher movie later, got really good effects too, a real gore-fest. Lovely jubbly. Love thy neighbour? wasn’t that a sitcom back in the 60’s? It still is mate.

Last edited 3 years ago by Geoff H
Michael James
Michael James
3 years ago

Arendt was wrong about Eichmann. See UnHerd, 12.04.21: the review of Bettina Stangneth’s book, Eichmann Before Jerusalem.

Last edited 3 years ago by Michael James
Tom Fox
Tom Fox
3 years ago

The historical treatment of trials of perpetrators of genocide held that any human being had some innate sense of morality and was therefore personally responsible for the acts they performed under military orders. I don’t think this is true.
I see the human child as having something in common with an open systems computer. It will accept and run whatever operating system you load into it. Linux or Windows. Freebsd or Android. Western liberalism with Christian values, Na3ism, Isil, or African tribalism.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
3 years ago

People expect wicked people to look wicked. They don’t expect them to look nondescript, someone you would pass in the street without a second glance. I think Arendt must have been influenced by that viewpoint.
I always remember a colleague telling a group of us that a former friend of hers had been convicted of child sexual abuse. She said she couldn’t get her head round the shock as this ‘friend’ was the nicest person you could ever hope to meet.
Evil wears many different faces.

Dominic S
Dominic S
3 years ago

ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

It is in our very ordinariness that such sinful depravity can be hidden. Scripture reminds us not to judge by outward appearances, but to focus on words and actions as reveal the truth of what lies in men’s hearts.

greg waggett
greg waggett
3 years ago

Eichmann and ISIS have one thing in common: sadism. They enjoy monstrous, barbaric cruelty. Love it.
There’s your article.

Athena Jones
Athena Jones
3 years ago

The mistake is thinking Eichmann or ISIS are particular, when the capacity for such evil is human. Humans have a habit of projecting onto others their own capacity for evil, and it is that constant which Milgram’s experiment touched upon.

Simon Cooper
Simon Cooper
3 years ago

Anyone who doesn’t think that a/any person has the capacity to inflict profoundly disturbing evil on others. Is dangerously naive.

Edward Paul Campbell
Edward Paul Campbell
3 years ago

“The Devil makes mischief for idle hands”.

The Monster from the Id that emerges, Forbidden Planet like, from the most primitive structures of the energised unconscious mind to wreak species self destruction. Just like the ill-fated Krell.

It is interesting to reflect on the Jungian message of that iconic 1950s film which resonates as much today as it did back in the early days of ‘atomic holocaust’ paranoia.

As cosmologists pessimistically say, “climate catastrophe or self destruction could be the two main reasons why we don’t find extraterrestrial technological civilisations orbiting any stars out to 1,000 light years and far beyond. Once they discover E=MC2 their fate is sealed”.

Why does humanity not collectively ask itself why it needs 15,000 nuclear weapons, more than 3 decades after the end of the Cold War, and why we still spend trillions annually on developing more efficient weapons platforms to kill each other, rather than curing major diseases like cancer, and ending worldwide poverty?

The reality seems to be that our 200 million year old limbic system makes 90-95% of our selfish decisions, while our weaker 150,000 year old cerebral cortex justifies the tyranny from the Id. We are the extinct Krell but we don’t acknowledge ourselves due to cognitive dissonance. The monstrous alien ‘other’ within the human.

mac mahmood
mac mahmood
3 years ago

Why did Henry Vlll like to kill? IS is no Different to any other warring party. Only they do not have the luxury of being able to bring overwhelming force to the fray.

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago
Reply to  mac mahmood

They managed to bring overwhelming force to the fray when they took Northern Iraq and Syria and massacred the locals. They just happened to run up against bigger enemies in the Russians and the US. But by that point they’d already commited plenty of atrocities against weaker opponents. As for Henry viii… Perhaps he was also evil?

Kate bull
Kate bull
3 years ago

All the ‘people’ mentioned here are not ‘people’ in the sense of random members of the human race whose motives we are trying to understand. For a start, they are all MEN. Surely this is a huge clue. I doubt that women would be subject to quite the same generalisations.

Vikram Sharma
Vikram Sharma
3 years ago
Reply to  Kate bull

Aha, so men and women are different after all! Gender is not a social construct.
Or is it that in positive attributes there are no gender differences, but in negative ones, men are always worse.
You should be writing for the Guardian.

William Harvey
William Harvey
3 years ago
Reply to  Kate bull

In this article yes… but let’s not forget that some of the very worst of the Stalinist and Nazi torturers and murdrrrs were also women. It doesn’t take much research to find out that the likes of Hermine Braunsteiner weren’t as rare as you imply

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago
Reply to  Kate bull

Women tend not to have the same opportunities to commit atrocities as they are rarely in active service and typically don’t have the strength to overwhelm males, unless they are armed. However, where these opportunities exist, they are taken. For example, there are reports of woman soviet soldiers torturing, raping and murdering captured German soldiers during stalingrad. And don’t forget all those jihadi wives who left nice comfortable homes in the west to join the good fight against the infidel.

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

I’ve heard about women raping men, what exactly happens?

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

I’d start with https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/11/the-understudied-female-sexual-predator/503492/ and follow the links from there if you want more information.

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Interesting, but that’s all about sexual assault, not rape surely?

Betty Fyffe
Betty Fyffe
3 years ago
Reply to  Kate bull

Bl**dy Mary? Isbella (with Ferdinand) of Spain? Winnie Mandella?