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Using ‘evil’ to identify ISIS, is to present their actions as outside the bounds of human capacity.

Their actions are abhorrent.

But to dehumanise and moralise is to pretend that humans are incapable of doing bad things.

‘EVIL’ represents the worst of the worst, and it is also a way to strip an ideology of its political character.

The evil terrorists out to kill everyone are much harder to comprehend as a group and an ideological force, than one with a clearly defined political character. It’s harder to create fear when there are known quantities.

ISIS could be presented politically, but they aren’t. It would bring to realisation the fact the last four Presidents of America have engaged in intervention in Iraq, and it’s in part, America’s own making. Not wishing to become a self loathing westerner, it’s undeniable that ISIS are using American funded weapons and the Huffington post claims that James Foley Was Tortured By ISIS Militants Using CIA Techniques.

They are reflecting our own barbaric intentions in a sense, using ‘our’ weapons and ‘our’ methods, against us. Damn it, some of them even are ‘us’, as western Muslims travel to Iraq and Syria to participate.

By dehumanising their actions, it gives them an ideological pass. Almost as if we expect them to do bad, so that when they do, it is not a surprise. Oh, and a justifiably inhumane response can be afforded to stop this evil, with no recollection of the arming of the likes of the taleban, Saddam etc, before they suddenly turned on ‘us.’

It’s easy to forget that supposedly ‘evil’ people gain power, make plans, deploy armies, coerce, kill, propagandise and indoctrinated people, using human agency. The way it is presented, one would be forgiven for thinking that ISIS act through black magic or through raising mutant orks out of Mount Doom like in Lord of the Rings.

The application of this term – ‘evil’ – serves to present a person, or an idea, or a group, as so bad, that is is no longer human. They are beyond comprehension.

After all, ‘we’ are incapable of ‘Evil.’ By ‘we’ I mean the West, but of course.

By default, those doing the othering, calling people ‘evil’, are presented as the anti-thesis.

The good.

US comedian, Stephen Kruiser expressed this fallacy the other day:

If you are claiming that you can overcome evil, by nuking someone, the term evil loses its value as a demarcator of good and bad.

Nowhere more clearly can this be seen with contributors to the project for the A-Bomb, Albert Einstein, Eugene Wigner and Leo Szilard.

All were all European Jewish refugees that fled to America, and all later became critics of the proposed use of the atomic bomb. It is worth considering that as Europeans, if they had not fled, they could have helped Hitler get that A-Bomb first, and it would have been very different.

Leo Szilard wrote in an interview entitled ‘President Truman Did Not Understand‘, that if it had been Germany that had dropped the atomic bombs:

 ..We would then have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them

Of course that is hypothetical, but the principle is the same. The action of a ‘goodie’, no matter how barbaric or indiscriminate, is not evil, because the agent is supposedly not evil. The other protagonist, in this case Japan, but in another case, perhaps ISIS, are Evil. Any means justifies the ends according to this logic. Nuking included?

Killing hundreds of thousands of people was not hypothetical. It happened. Yet it was not presented as a war crime or a crime against humanity at the time, because it was in the context of war, and done by the victorious side, so it was done by ‘the good’ against ‘the bad.’

ISIS or ISIL or IS whatever we are now calling them, have on multiple occasions been branded as ‘evil.’

Their tirade of pillaging Iraq and Syria, beheading, massacring, besieging, raping murdering, threatening and indoctrinating has been horrific to watch unfold.

It has been a new enemy that is widely identifiable.

But why is their barbarism deserving of being evil, when for example; America nuking Japan is not evil. After all, the latter was far more indiscriminate and deadly?

In the LA Times, there was an article written by Jonah Goldberg asking ‘If ‘evil’ doesn’t apply to Islamic State, what does?’. In this article, there is an emphasis on the term evil having been used historically in two ways. 

Firstly, for ‘American Self Loathing’, such as the emphasis on American racism and capitalism being evil and sinister, whilst hiding behind the image of American exceptionalism. Secondly, as a cartoon, almost a parody-esque term, that reduces the sophistication of the argument, to make a A ‘baddie’ in a movie.

The article outlined that sanitising language is appropriate when people don’t pay attention. But clearly people are paying attention to ISIS, and therefore it is necessary to de-sanitise ISIS. We need to apply a harsh term, because they are.. well… Evil.

In response, American News station, CNN, dedicated a piece on the issue, questioning ‘Should we call ISIS ‘evil’?‘, and in the New York Times, Michael J Boyle wrote a piece about the moralising of the ISIS-EVIL debate, in ‘The Problem With ‘Evil”.

The general theme of the debate is that ISIS’s action constitute something barbaric, and deserve the term evil.

Jonah Goldberg asks ‘Who are you saving the word for if “evil” is too harsh for Islamic State?’.

This presents a readiness to criticise those who question the application of the term ‘evil’, as defenders of ISIS somehow.

Like a small child that has a new pair of shoes that he is desperate to wear, Jonah Goldberg is looking for a reason to use evil.


Because using evil sets off them against ‘us’, and let’s face it, America needs a bit of good press lately. There is an eagerness and panic by those seeking to label ISIS as evil, to build an identity and a character profile, that everyone can relate too, and sooner rather than later, someone can swoop in and be the hero by acting against. 

It’s hard to act against an agent that you have no mandate yo act against. Branding them as evil is creating that mandate. It’s creating a legitimate moral grievance to act. 

The underlying theme is that some need to be outraged over ISIS, because ISIS are doing terrible things, and as santisised westerners we struggle to identify with it.

Calling them evil is symptomatic of our need to define ourselves in the west through others barbarism. We have not held up our own standards for a long time, and we thus look for any opportunity to re-assert who is the good guy, and who is the bad guy.

They aren’t a characters in a movie. They are an Islamic movement, who want to establish a caliphate, and kill people who won’t do as they want. They are a political enemy, not a protagonist in a film, and the longer we insist on presenting them in a trivial way, through good and evil, the harder it will be to overcome.