Those of you who are reading this blog from beginning to end, and especially those who follow this blog on a regular basis, are ethical, empathetic, and independent thinkers; otherwise, you would have moved on to other blogs more suited to your inclinations. You may have heard of ethical relativity or even taken a course in it at college but you believe viscerally in ethical absolutes, that there is such a thing as absolute Good and absolute Evil. I know these things because I’m like that too and like minds tend to cluster together.
Therefore we are clueless about how could anybody join or support a group of terrorists like ISIS, so hateful, so full of disregard for the sanctity of life and body, and so obviously Evil. We don’t understand such Evil. We didn’t understand Nazi Evil and we don’t understand ISIS Evil. Incidentally, they are not the same kinds of Evil. The Nazi kind was impersonal and efficient. The ISIS kind is personal and inefficient. Not that it matters. The point is that ethical absolutism does not equip us with the means to analyze how Good people can become Evil.
In my ever so humble opinion, it has to do with collateral damage.
It happens like this: you’re ten years old and walking your little sister home from Sunday school. She’s wearing her white dress with the blue and yellow flowers that your mother made for her. Out of the clear blue sky comes a missile fired from a drone at a terrorist training camp on the other side of a tall sand dune, but the coordinates fed into the missile’s guidance system were off slightly and it shot over the sand dune and incinerated your little sister. You can’t read English very well, but you recognize the “US” markings and the stenciled flag on one of the burning twisted pieces of metal from the exploded missile. You are radicalized.
You came to this country with your young wife to make a new life and participate in the American dream. You don’t speak the language very well. You don’t have the requisite education. You are marginalized. You are disenfranchised. You are radicalized.
Your parents came to this country and worked very hard so that you would have the kind of life they never could have dreamed of. They put you through school. You graduate from university. You’re hired for a good job. Nobody even knows your background or cares about it. You’re just like them. You feel you’re floating. Your life has no purpose or meaning. You meet someone by chance. He’s from your parent’s old village. He’s charismatic. He introduces you to his friends. They tell you stories like the first or second one. You feel their pain. You feel their hatred. Suddenly your life has purpose and meaning. You are radicalized.
Once you are radicalized you see only brothers or sisters and enemies. Enemies don’t seem human to you anymore. Enemies are Evil. How can it be Evil to destroy Evil?
The generals and politicians talk about collateral damage, acceptable losses, the cost of waging war, innocents who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Collateral damage is a weak signal lost in a vast sea of statistical noise when we attempt to calculate the effects of a military action.
The potential of radical hatred and revenge of a single man or woman may be more Evil than an atom bomb. We should expect our generals and politicians to put that into their calculations next time they try to calculate the consequences of going to war.
And just for the record, nobody, not even ISIS, believes that his own actions are Evil.