Chris Hedges has published an essay arguing a moral equivalence between “us” and the savagery of the Islamic State.
He says, “The barbarism we condemn is the barbarism we commit. The line that separates us from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is technological, not moral.” Hedges cites innocents killed by the dozen in bombings by the US as counterweight to the horrific death of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh and victims of CIA torture dying with rags in their mouths as foils to the journalists beheaded in ISIS propaganda videos.
He adds that, “since ISIS is limited in its capacity for war it must broadcast to the world a miniature version of what we do to people in the Middle East. The ISIS process is cruder. The result is the same.”
Hedges is right to condemn the wrong committed by the West and by the United States in its dealings with the Middle East and with the exploited peoples of the world in general.
America has done horrible things.
All of the examples Hedges cites have been loudly condemned by many observers and have been the subject of protest and petitions to the government. Therein lies the first point on which Hedges is wrong in arguing for moral equivalence between Western society and the budding caliphate of ISIS.
The very fact that Mr. Hedges can publish his dissent–that any of us can–is one proof of cultural superiority. I wonder how much truck he would get with his criticisms were he under ISIS’s jurisdiction?
That, of course, is not adequate.
It is never enough to say: At least we have civil liberties so that we can try to right the wrongs committed by our government. We should proffer no excuses on those counts.
Yes, conducting a remote-control war with impunity is wrong.
And killing civilians, however unintentionally, during such a war is criminal.
But make no mistake, Mr. Hedges: Cutting someone’s head off when they are bound and helpless before you is evil.
Hedges’ purpose is to warn us about the typical framing of war as a struggle between good and evil. It is a tired ploy to win the population’s sympathies and passions to a cause. Again, he is right. If we imagine the twenty-first century might attain a more enlightened sensibility than the preceding eras of human history, one in which peace and pluralism prevail, then we should inoculate ourselves against such simplistic narratives and their crude black and white hats.
And yet, evil is still with us.
We do not have to pretend we are pure, or all good, or perfectly righteous to fight evil. No. In fact it would be morally reprehensible to face true evil–as ISIS surely is, as surely as the Nazis were, and as surely as anything ever has been–and say that only he who is without sin should cast the stone.
We do not have to dehumanize the members of ISIS as we have countless belligerents before–as they themselves do when condemning us as infidels deserving to die, whether “we” are journalists they have captured in the field or simply the families of the soldiers fighting the war. We do not have to fall into those traps of reducing our enemies to things.
But we do have to fight ISIS.
We have no option. There is no negotiation with a regime this sick, this twisted. The people who fight for ISIS, people though they are, have committed themselves to the service of an ideology so depraved that it justifies genocide, slavery, murder, and the eradication of liberty in the name of their god.
This is what Hedges thinks is morally equivalent to the sins of the West? Only through the most warped of lenses could the callousness of Western global capitalism and its proxy armies be leveled with the brutality we are now witnessing. Making this argument is strictly delusional, suspending all judgement, all reason. It is, in short, subscribing the stark black-and-white kind of worldview that ISIS itself embraces. There are no degrees. There is no subtlety. For Hedges and the Islamic State, there is only violence and it is all of one character. There are only ends. Means are irrelevant.
But there is something we can take away from Hedges’ delusional stance. We cannot continue to stomach such violence as currency if we want to build a twenty-first century that is fundamentally different from the twentieth. In that century, we passed through our collective struggle with an enemy with whom their could be no dialogue–Nazism–and then delved into a power struggle with an enemy with whom we might have engaged–Communism. What would the twentieth century have been without the mad power struggle between super powers? What could we have done if we had sought to advance our values before our power position?
We face similar choices today. We have states like Iran and North Korea with human rights policies which we find deplorable and ambitions that include nuclear arsenals. We have a Russian regime intent on expanding its regional power, of reclaiming past glory and resources. Faced with these challenges, we bluster and talk about containment. It is a familiar tactic. After WWII, we chose to “contain” the Soviet Union, labeling them an empire of evil and taking the world to the brink of ruin.
The moment has come again, though we have squandered our best opportunities to advance a more moral agenda during our “War on Terror.” Many argue compellingly that ISIS’s rise is a consequence of those policies, that we would no more have to defeat ISIS today if we had chosen more wisely after 9/11 than we would have had to fight Hitler had the Treaty of Versailles been more forgiving.
When ISIS is defeated, then we will once again face a critical juncture when history’s course will be in our hands to decide, and before the compass needle settles back into place, we will have to choose a direction, choose how best to shape the world to come.
It will be an opportunity to lead the world toward everything that ISIS is not, to promote openness in societies around the globe, to sanctify life at home and abroad, to foster true liberty in speech, action, and thought.
It will mean no more drone wars, no more torture-riddled black sites. It will also mean seeing to our own shortcomings as a society, such as dismantling our privatized prison system and eradicating the death penalty. We trumpet our freedom, but that freedom is incomplete–and we are poor spokespeople for liberty–as long as our own society is plagued by injustice and inequality. We must surely see to these blights at home while we strike at the anathema of ISIS.
Only then can we truly sit down with Putin’s Russia, with Rouhani’s Iran, or Kim’s North Korea and extend our vision of a better world, an inclusive world. Only then can we be the example of what the twenty-first century should be, the anti-ISIS.