Only by accepting that monstrous conditions make monstrous people, and not the other way around, can we begin to correctly identify and address the problem.
Ever since the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) as a primary combatant in the Levant, there have been a string of stories detailing the systematic rape of women and girls as a tactic of war. These stories are profoundly upsetting and difficult to process, as they must be to properly convey the material. My immediate reaction is to rage inwardly at men who would brutalize young girls to advance a cause. Incapable of grasping the scope of their crimes, my mind retreats to the safe harbor of moralistic condemnation. Surely these men are evil. Surely there is something in these men that allows them to do what I cannot even contemplate without feeling sick.
But I am forced to remind myself that evil is a lazy concept. It is a shield used to deflect away as “other” that which is simply a byproduct of our capacity for ignorance, hatred, cruelty, and pride. It is a veil that allows us to ignore the terrible damage wrought on society by long suffering and traumatic violence. I force myself to acknowledge, however painfully, that IS fighters are not made of different stuff than me. We are brothers and sisters in humanity, and they are raping 12-year-old girls in the name of God. Worse, they are using the promise of rape as a lure for membership, and it appears to be working.
The Islamic State’s atrocities cannot be explained away by an evil inherent in its members any more than the Holocaust can be explained by an evil inherent in Germans during World War II. In both cases the naturally cruel and avaricious were no doubt drawn to systems that would foster their brutality, but there is no reason to believe that more of these people exist in Eastern Europe or the Levant. IS is merely an example of what an otherwise ordinary human can do when you combine deprivation and trauma with our species’ natural inclinations towards conformity, obedience, and rage.
None of this is to say that the tactics and intent of Islamic State are justified or that action should not be taken to oppose them. IS is the fever that comes with an infection. You must fight it because it is a miserable thing to experience and because it could easily kill you if left unchecked. You are worse than foolish, however, if you believe that eradicating the fever has cured the illness.
IS is an enemy worth fighting if ever there was one in the modern age, but it is not the illness. It was created and has gained momentum at such a startling pace because the environment in which it exists has been primed for conflict. Age-old ethnic divisions (underpinned by a legacy of Colonialism and Imperialism), gross misrule, infrastructure incapable of adapting to the agricultural implications of climate change, and serially mishandled interventions on the part of the international community have all conspired to savage the people of the Levant. Groups like IS flourish in a savage environment.
These contributory factors run much deeper than any one extremist group. In both Iraq and Syria, destabilized dictatorships have left a power vacuum that IS is voraciously seeking to fill. In both countries, persistent civil conflict has generated a population of militarized, disaffected, and traumatized young men who are all too susceptible to the calling of a radical insurgency. In both cases, the West bears a good deal of blame for current conditions.
We must examine our own culpability in the creation of an environment in which the murder and rape of children flourishes and begin to discuss how we can correct the systemic mistakes that led us here. Our conception of IS as evil, as apart from the rest of us, allows us to avoid these difficult questions. Only by accepting that monstrous conditions make monstrous people, and not the other way around, can we begin to correctly identify and address the problem.
And therein lays the malignant laziness of moralistic condemnation. If we retreat to the easy explanation for monstrous things and relegate IS fighters to somehow sub-human, then the solution is, if not easy, at least simple; destroy IS. Root out the corruption and be done. If we accept, however, that IS fighters are for the most part regular people in a monstrous environment, then the solution is much more fraught.
It is not simply a question of defeating an enemy in the field. It becomes a question of taking action to heal broken nations and avoiding those actions which contribute to chronic instability and violence. This acceptance is doubly difficult. In addition to contending with a more daunting challenge than the simple eradication of a paramilitary force, we must face our commonality with men who would rape and murder children.