James Taranto: Don’t See Evil

“Is ISIS evil?” asks James Dawes, director of the Program in Human Rights at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in a CNN.com op-ed. His answer: “Yes, ISIS is evil and must be stopped.”

Thus concludes today’s installment of Shortest Op-Eds Ever Written.

Just kidding. The op-ed actually runs 700 words. It’s titled “Should We Call ISIS ‘Evil’?” and Dawes argues that we shouldn’t–even though he himself does in the course of the piece.

“There is only one good reason to denounce a group as evil,” Dawes claims: “because you plan to injure them, and calling them evil makes it psychologically easier to do so.” If that is true, it would seem to apply here, at least to American public officials’ about ISIS.

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But is it even true? Martin Luther King once said: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Dr. King’s approach was not to injure his adversaries but to shame them using nonviolent resistance. It would be fatuous to suggest that such tactics would be effective against ISIS, but violence is not the only way to respond to evil.

If an intent to injure one’s adversaries is not a necessary condition to justify denouncing them as evil, it should be obvious that neither is it a sufficient one. Dawes has twisted things around so that an intent to injure is a justification. We hope it is not too controversial to assert instead that the infliction of injury requires justification, and important question is not the language one uses to denounce one’s adversaries but whether the denunciation is morally true (which, in the case of ISIS, Dawes has conceded it is).

Dawes was prompted to write this piece by a tweet from National Review’s Jonah Goldberg: “People looking to put ISIS in ‘context’ desperately avoid most obvious context. They’re evil. They do obviously evil things for evil ends.” Dawes’s piece illustrates Goldberg’s point: “The fact is, there are few things more dangerous now than allowing ourselves to think that way,” he writes:

We can say they are evil people doing evil things for evil ends. Or we can do the hard work of understanding the context that made them, so that we can create a context that unmakes them.

It’s not exactly clear who “we” are, much less whether it is within “our” capability to “create a context that unmakes them” (except perhaps by killing “enough of its fanatics,” as The Wall Street Journal suggests in an editorial Dawes scorns.

In any case, it seems to us Dawes is setting up a false dilemma: Is it really the case that describing a group as “evil people doing evil things for evil ends” precludes doing “the hard work of understanding the context that makes them?”

There is a way of putting that question to an empirical test. Last year Harvard University Press published a book called “Evil Men,” which draws “on firsthand interviews with convicted war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945),” according to the Amazon.com blurb.

That blurb describes “Evil Men” as “a searching meditation on our all-too-human capacity for inhumanity.” Someone could read the book and see whether it lives up to that description. If it does, it disproves Dawes’s contention.

Someone else will have to read the book, though. We’re not going to bother, because we’ve thus far been unimpressed with the quality of its author’s thinking. And if the book isn’t as searching a meditation as the blurb claims, that doesn’t necessarily prove Dawes is right in general, only that he has accurately described an intellectual limitation of the author of “Evil Men”–James Dawes.

A somewhat more sophisticated variant of the argument appeared the next day in a New York Times op-ed by Michael Boyle, an associate professor of political science at Philadelphia’s La Salle University. He argues that ISIS’ beheading of journalist James Foley “has also led to a disturbing return of the moralistic language once used to describe Al Qaeda in the panicked days after the 9/11 attacks”:

In an eerie echo of President George W. Bush’s description of the global war on terrorism as a campaign against “evildoers,” President Obama described ISIS as a “cancer” spreading across the Middle East that had “no place in the 21st century.” Secretary of State John Kerry condemned ISIS as the face of a “savage” and “valueless evil,” while Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, called the group “barbaric.”

It is certainly true that moral clarity is not the same thing as strategic clarity, and we agree that describing ISIS as “inexplicable” and “nihilistic” reflects strategic incomprehension. We also agree that the Obama administration, and Kerry in particular, has shown a tendency to fall back on moralistic rhetoric in an effort to compensate for deficiencies of strategic thinking. Remember that “Munich moment” this time last year?

But it the suppression of moral judgment necessary in order to reason strategically? Is it even helpful?

Since we’re using the metaphor of “clarity,” let’s consider an analogy to the real thing. When your eye focuses on an object, other things in your field of vision appear blurred. Glasses that correct for myopia (blurred distance vision) can worsen presbyopia (blurred near vision), and vice versa. But by changing glasses, even somebody who suffers from both conditions can both read a map and drive a car. Analogously, an effective statesman ought to be able to change perspectives and “see” an adversary both morally and strategically.

Incidentally, these days you can buy glasses that correct both near and distance vision. Ironically, they are called “progressives.”

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The (non-optical) “progressives” are really being tested these days.  But they are doubling down, just like they did after 9/11.  Apparently their thought processes is frozen.  It is always 1968.

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