There are some men whose cruelty only seems comprehensible with the aid of a jocular epithet: Comical Ali, or Uncle Joe. We can add Jihadi John to that list. He may have been unveiled on Thursday as Londoner Mohammed Emwazi, “cold, sadistic, and merciless” in the words of one hostage he guarded, but the incongruous nickname seems likely to stick. This cartoonish image can also lead us astray.
Cage is a British organisation that “campaigns against state policies” towards “communities impacted by the war on terror”. It had been in contact with Emwazi until 2012. They portray him as an “extremely gentle, kind” and “beautiful young man” – words that might lead one to question their judgment – radicalised under relentless and arbitrary pressure from the British government. In this version, Emwazi is a tragic victim crushed by the power of an overweening security state. The world sees a butcher; Cage sees a dupe.
In case anyone was in danger of missing the point, Cage’s website broadcast a simpler message: “the state is the only terrorist”.