What IS has to do with evil


Hooded IS member with hostage

IS is getting a bad press in Australia.  Deservedly so, for its brutality and totalitarian instincts.  In the headlines the word ‘evil’ has been dominant, sometimes even ‘pure evil’, over pictures of balaclava’d and hooded figures in black. This suggests that they belong to a totally different world than ours, one incomprehensible to us in its absolute darkness. 

This characterisation is unhelpful for two reasons.  First, if we are to respond to IS intelligently and effectively in such a complex environment we must be able to enter their minds.  Otherwise we shall be like the police in crime shows who plan a frontal attack on the villain holding a cigarette lighter near a lake of gushing petrol. Simply to call him evil, vicious and senseless may satisfy our anger but it does not help save his hostages or protect the town.

Second, and more important, if we are to judge their actions we must measure them by the same moral calculus as we do our own actions. Otherwise we empty the word ‘evil’ of any meaning. Evil becomes what they do;  good is what we do. This is precisely the kind of thinking adopted by members of IS.  

The questions relevant for evaluating both our own and IS’s actions are whether they respect the dignity of other human beings, whether their goals and the means by which they pursue them are ethically justifiable, and whether the good consequences of their actions will be proportionate to the bad consequences. 

Actions such as the killing, torture and rape of defenceless human beings and the denial of freedom to worship, certainly violate human dignity. They assert that people are of value and entitled to flourish only if they are on our side or share our beliefs. We are right to call this evil, but it is ordinary human evil, not beyond understanding. 

The goal of IS appears to be to create a Caliphate through the Middle East.  This is not in itself necessarily bad. But the means taken to achieve it, which include the killing of people because of their religious allegiance, the use of torture and arbitrary killing as a way of subduing civilian populations, and carrying out exemplary, brutal executions to embroil foreign powers in the conflict and so draw recruits to IS, are morally unjustifiable.  They all involve infringing grossly the dignity of one group of people in order to secure goals that have nothing to do with their welfare.  

These actions, however repugnant, do not set ISIS in a unique category of pure evil.  There are many other examples of using bad means to achieve dubious goals.  Some of the more egregious have included the pattern bombing of Dresden to weaken civilian morale, the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador to empty the pond in which guerillas swam. The sustained detention of asylum seekers in the ‘factories of mental illness’ by Australia to deter others is another example of using bad means for a doubtful goal. Like IS’s activities, these actions are comprehensible. They may be morally wrong and inhumane, but are not pure evil.

The consequences that can be anticipated to flow from unchecked IS actions are great.  They include the killing and intimidation of civilian populations, displacement and impoverishment and more intense violent conflict in an already violent world.  Human misery will grow. The bad consequences are disproportionate to any good goals. 

The consequences of the Western use of military force, however, also need to be weighed. It is not clear that any good consequences of a bombing campaign, with its inevitable civilian casualties, in concert with other militant groups and nations with their own interests and a bad human rights record, will outweigh the bad consequences.  Consequences generate new consequences.  Given that the goal of delivering Iraq and Syria from the threat of IS is unlikely to be achieved simply by bombs and rockets, it is predictable that at some time troops will be committed on the ground. Whether these are from nations outside the region or from nations and groups with interests in the region, it is also predictable that they will intensify, not heal, conflict. 

Talking about the ‘pure evil’ of the actions of IS distracts us from the more exigent question whether our own actions are morally justifiable. The fate and the lives of millions of people depend on us weighing that question diligently. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, IS, evil, Islam, extremism, media



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Existing comments

It is unsurprising to find in a society that casually kills the most innocent of all (80,000 abortions annually) moral-equivalence arguments in relation to other monstrous evils such as IS.

Ross Howard | 01 October 2014  

To say that the goal of a Caliphate "is not in itself necessarily bad" is incorrect. A Caliphate in the Middle East would be very bad. Bad for every woman within its borders. Bad for every girl who has hope for the future. Bad for any who flirt with free thought. Bad for wives who are stoned to death, daughters who are married to men they have not met. A Caliphate would be an armed Dark Ages dictatorship in the modern world.

Harry | 02 October 2014  

IS's barbaric, and horrifyingly cruel, acts seem to be perpetrated for the purpose of inciting war - however, these are also the acts of deeply damaged individuals. Beheadings and other cruel acts are not new in war. I think the difference in this day and age is the use of the internet to horrify large numbers of people. War is a horrible prospect for any nation and I am saddened that ever more bloodshed will be expended. And I wish our PM would moderate his language in talking about this.

Pam | 02 October 2014  

Call a spade a spade - IS is pure evil.

ron | 02 October 2014  

"IS is getting a bad press in Australia. Deservedly so, for its brutality and totalitarian instincts.".... The same instincts seem to have been present in the twin baby boys at their mother's breast, each in a fearful rage, trying to drive the other away by whatever means they could find available. When he witnessed it, St Augustine remarked that the innocence - non-harmfulness- of babies resided not so much in the goodness of their intentions but in the weakness of their limbs. Hopefully as the twins matured they realised the benefits of mutual respect and cooperation. Hopefully too the solipsistic cultures and religions will also mature and benefit from the same mutual respect and cooperation.

Name | 02 October 2014  

Yes, Ron, just as evil as locking up children in detention centres and pushing people over the edge to burn themselves alive.

AURELIUS | 02 October 2014  

For more than eighty years many people throughout the world have attempted to understand and explain the thoughts, writings and actions of the Nazis throughout the The Third Reich. The great Italian, Jewish writer Primo Levi, who had personal experience of the death camps, considered such striving for understanding was, is a fuitless exercise. There can be no understanding, no explanation for the depraved thoughts and actions of the Nazis. They were, are beyond human comprehension. I believe IS's treatment of one half of the human race, women, IS's contempt for and treatment of those of non-IS conviction is beyond rational explanation, beyond human comprehension. In the face of such behaviour, without human comprehension, evil will do.

John Nicholson | 02 October 2014  

Spot on, I totally agree. It is so "human" to get carried away facing an enemy who has no regard for human life.

Elena Christe | 02 October 2014  

I find Andrew’s tortuous argument against calling the Islamic State “evil” to be not in the least compelling. If they are not evil I don’t know who is. Maybe his argument is that no-one is? The examples he cites are cherry-picked, including his favoured topic, the management of asylum seekers, and the contentious bombing of Dresden. He might have given us some more realistic comparisons, such as the Holocaust, Mao’s contributions, or Stalin’s.

T. J. Martin | 03 October 2014  

Whoa! If Andrew's argument is trying to explain that a both/and (a conjunctive view) capacity for evil is within each of us and requires all parties to reflect on the contribution we each make to an evil and/or good situation then I think he could have argued it better and differently. I think that IS actions are evil (I do not wish to walk in their shoes - no) and I also think that the use of US drones (which has generated another evil) leaves the like of IS to respond to them by beheadings of innocents etc is all part of the imploding societal self-destruction currently underway. Asking the exigent question whether our actions are morally justifiable is also only part of the necessary response ... what really matters is the likes of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (as mentioned by Peter Kirkwood in Eureka Street on 8th July) who is an Islamic scholar helping to develop the Islamic Rule of Law Index through the Cordoba Project ... and a groundswell of ordinary people like you and me modelling a peace-filled way of life with each other and our neighbours (doing "the hard yards"). We also need to bring our children hope ...

mary tehan | 03 October 2014  

1. A Catholic may in good conscience support Australia's detention seeker policy and dispute the characterization of it as the creation of "factories of mental illness", and "using bad means to a doubtful goal". But a Catholic may never support the intrinsically evil means taken by ISIS to establish their hegemony. So intrinsically evil acts vs. a policy which is open to Catholics to approve of (or not). There's a huge, morally significant gulf there. The question as to whether ISIS is "pure evil" or not is not really relevant to how we judge its activities and evaluate it alongside other entities. In fact, strictly speaking "pure evil" is a non-existent category. St Thomas Aquinas defines evil as the lack of a good which ought to be present. So nothing which is simply pure evil can have existence. Thus not even Satan himself is "pure evil". As my old lecturer put it: insofar as Satan is, he is good - it's that he isn't all that he ought to be which is what is evil about him. So ISIS, like Satan, is not pure evil. But stating as much doesn't really get us very far.

HH | 03 October 2014  

HH seems to be cuaght up in either/or politics. I don't think anyone in their right mind would support ISIS and claim thir actions were not evil - just as any thinking, empathetic person (religious affliiation irrelvant) would support AUstralia's detention policy. I would really like ES readers to step away from this binary political thinking and get back to the issues -the humanity we are dealing with.

AURELIUS | 03 October 2014  

So the Abbott government asylum seeker detention poicies are as morally unjustifiable as the IS atrocities, so we should not cast stones at IS. OK, but whilst I don't know for sure I'm sort of guessing that the non-IS people being tortured, raped and murdered would probably prefer that we take some action to try to help them rather than leaving them to their fate while we (because the majority of us voted for the Abbott government) contemplate our own lack of moral perfection. And I get it that there can always be an excuse for doing nothing that mistakes might happen that could make things worse (although I'm glad that the average surgeon, cleaner or mechanic or other repairer doesn't think like that). I understand the Australian bien pensant moral relativist thinking that no-one should be demonised (other than the Abbott government of course). I didn't think it possible to extend that to IS, but it seems so if useful for making a shallow political point.

Oh please! | 03 October 2014  

Acknowledging the mote in our own eye may be unpalatable but surely it is necessary, not only personally but also nationally, if we are to avoid the very extremism we deplore?

John Kelly | 06 October 2014  

John Nicholson, quoting Primo Levi on Hitler and Nazism, is on the right tack. The Islamic State ; its leader and operatives, like Nazi Germany; Hitler; the Waffen SS et al are so abnormal psychologically that they are impossible for the average sane, decent person to get his/her head around. However, the fact they are, in layman's terms " downright loony" does not excuse them from taking full responsibility for their actions. I myself have a problem with a Caliphate. From my reading the Ottoman Empire ( a caliphate) was as colonial as any other empire and that non-Muslims were second class citizens, despite the " privileged " position Christians and Jews held as " People of the Book" . Those considered not to be " People of the Book" basically had no rights. The inglorious action of IS against the Yazidis (erroneously believed to be " devil worshippers" ) continues the inglorious tradition of Ottoman and most post British Iraqi governments. The massacre of Armenian and Assyrian Christians under the Ottomans is well known. There is, both in the Muslim world ( though somewhat muted today due to real fear) and the West a debate among Muslims as to whether the implementation of Sharia ( all encompassing Law which covers both Church and State ) is a good thing.

Edward Fido | 06 October 2014  

That's an interesting take, Aurelius: Saying that "Catholics in good conscience may hold differing positions on the current asylum seeker policy" is "binary" thinking, but "Anyone who disagrees with me and supports the current asylum seeker policy lacks the capacity to think or empathize" is not. I'm glad that's been cleared up.

HH | 06 October 2014  

John Kelly my point was that the non-ISIS people being tortured, raped and murdered would, I venture to suggest, rather we help them now than say we're too busy removing our motes.

Oh please! | 06 October 2014  

Don't see how bombing raids alleviate the plight of civilians caught under them, 'Oh please!' I do see, however, how they can fuel the fires of anti-western sentiment that characterises the kind of fanaticism you justly condemn.

John Kelly | 07 October 2014  

John Kelly your 7 October post raises a different point. The question of whether targeted bombing, which will probably accidentally kill some innocents, is better than doing nothing and letting more innocents get intentionally killed. Or doing nothing because of fear that it will stir up more anti-western extremism. So the question is whether we leave the innocents to their fate (they will be killed anyway) and hope that ISIS and other anti-western extremists will respect that we did not interfere with their killing of innocents and so will leave us alone. I think Our Lord had a parable about something like this - I mean the priest and the Levite probably thought the traveller lying on the side of the road to Jericho was already dead so would have thought themselves pure that they did not touch him. Good for them, but for the poor half-dead traveller, not so much. But then a Samaritan came along - just as well he didn't think his motes made him unworthy to help.

Oh please! | 07 October 2014  

To dismiss the actions of IS as pure evil means that we make no effort understand the genesis of such actions, and have no means to forestall their happening again.

Lenore Crocker | 07 October 2014  

"Oh, please!': Attending to the mote in one's own eye does not necessarily rule out action against injustice. The question is, what sort of action, especially when the lives of innocent civilians are at stake? I draw the line at targeted bombing when innocent people are used as shields, and victims are regarded as "accidents" or inevitable collateral casualties, especially when whole villages and towns are the arena of war. How their captors view the value of human life and how they conduct themselves should be no cue for action of like kind on our part. Consideration of just war theory also suggests that the probability of success and proportional outcome are not satisfied by this method in this instance.

John Kelly | 07 October 2014  

John Kelly - yes it appears ISIS are now adopting the Hamas strategy of using innocents as human shields, and that is forcing the coalition forces to re-think. So ISIS, like Hamas, is exploiting the West's weakness - its concern for innocent human life; and ISIS's disdain for innocent human life is their advantage. There is no perfect moral solution. But surely targeted bombing to minimise innocent deaths is preferable to leaving more innocents dead at the hands of ISIS. The suggestion that if we seek to prevent innocent death but in so doing there are some unintentional deaths we are morally equivalent to the intentional killers we are trying to stop is absurd. What should most concern those advocating the do nothing approach is the extent to which that is morally justifiable. But I suppose the priest and the Levite had a moral justification.

Oh please! | 08 October 2014  

Not so fast in pronouncing absurdity, 'Oh,please!': materially there is indeed a moral equivalence in that both IS and those who endorse target bombing leave undeserving people maimed and dead, with strained logic-chopping points of intentionality irrelevant to this fact and useless for the victims. By your calculus of probable consequences, the result is merited; by mine it is not. Moreover, the pursuit of those who perpetrate crimes against humanity involves no inherent requirement of target bombing, as you appear to think it does. This sort of realpolitik is a vicious circle.

John Kelly | 08 October 2014  

John Kelly leaving aside that the logic chopping is to fail to distinguish between intended and unintended consequences (Is a surgeon who embarks on what he knows is difficult and dangerous surgery to remove a terminal cancer and kills the patient in the process morally equivalent to someone who shoots the patient in the street?), then what else precisely can be done to minimise the victims of the ISIS atrocities? It seems to underly most do nothing advocates' arguments that there is a better way. Pray tell what precisely? All decent people of the world with the same concern for their neighbour as preached by Our Lord (whether they be guided by His teachings or another moral compass pointing the same way) await the revelation of this secret and mysterious better way. (And please don't say we should have a respectful discussion with them and appeal to their human decency.)

Oh please! | 08 October 2014  

I imagine, 'Oh, please!', Our Lord would entreat us, as a start, to pray for enemies. We can also ensure by our own respectful relationship with people of good will in the name of whose religion rogue groups operate that ideological transgressors are recognised as unrepresentative, and thus frustrated in their attempts to legitimise themselves and recruit. Aid to victims of war, as well as alleviating actual suffering, can also send a reminder that violence is not deemed a sole and desirable solution in international affairs. So can hospitable and dignified treatment of refugees. Oh, and desisting from stereotyping those who dispute the morality,wisdom and efficacy of targeted bombing as "do nothings" might go no little way to opening the possibility of a diplomatic outlook that fosters constructive rather than cynical and imaginatively inert relations, both here and abroad. No great secrecy or mystery about this.

John Kelly | 09 October 2014  

John Kelly our innocent neighbours are being set upon by murderous thugs. Your suggestion to help them is to pray for the thugs and give them good example - including of course by focussing on the real evil here, the Abbott government's demonic refugee policy. I cannot see how there is any practical morality in that approach but I implore you: I appreciate that an opportunity to criticise the Abbott government is an irresistable temptation, that the link (however strained) made in the above article between IS (bad) and refugee treatment (bad) read Abbott government (bad) (and ignoring the policies are the same as its predecessor's) is clever and plays well to the gallery, and anything that the Abbott government does (in this instance military action to try to stop the killing of innocents) must be criticised, innocent people are being mercilessly slaughtered in Syria. To forego the opportunity to make a shallow and tenuous domestic political debating point is not worth the moral cost of advocating leaving the innocents to their fate. Please.

Oh please! | 09 October 2014  

At this point, imputation of motive suggests that our discussion here has run its course, "Oh, please!' Thank you.

John Kelly | 09 October 2014  

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