Islamic State Turns Moral Relativity on Its Head Once and for All

A government building in Raqqa, Syria, the de facto capital of the Islamic State, which uses punishment as a pretext for its forces to commit sadistic acts. (Photo: Beshr / Flickr Commons)

A government building in Raqqa, Syria, the de facto capital of the Islamic State, which uses punishment as a pretext for its forces to commit sadistic acts. (Photo: Beshr / Flickr Commons)

The Islamic State continues to stretch the envelope of its own demented brand of creativity when torturing and killing prisoners, often designated as spies. After upping the ante on its trademark beheading, as well as stoning, by burning a Jordanian pilot to death, it recently released a video (unseen by me) in which it lowered five men in a cage into the pool of a luxury hotel in Nineveh, Iraq and drowned them, all while lovingly filming the entire act.

Also on the video, Islamic State forces locked men into a car, which they then blew up with a round from a grenade launcher. As if that’s not bad enough, the video also shows them linking five prisoners together with a live cable, which is then detonated, blowing up the prisoners.

On a smaller scale, but equally barbaric in its way, in Syria, Islamic State forces strung up two boys in Syria by their wrists on the pretext they broke the Ramadan fast, and left them hanging for hours.

At Aeon, Tage Rai, co-author with Alan Fiske of a recent book titled Virtuous Violence, attempts to explain the use of violence as punishment.

Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral. By ‘moral’, I mean that people are violent because they feel they must be; because they feel that their violence is obligatory. They know that they are harming fully human beings. Nonetheless, they believe they should. Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations.

Other ways of putting that might be all too familiar to us: “Don’t make me hit you.” “This is gonna hurt me more than it does you.” Rai cites another author.

In his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty (1999), the psychologist Roy Baumeister argues that people believe most perpetrators of violence to be sadists who gain pleasure from the suffering of innocent victims. … Baumeister called this phenomenon ‘the myth of pure evil’. A myth because it isn’t true.

In spite of widespread beliefs about its existence, sadism is so rare that it is not even an official psychiatric diagnosis. Its closest relative is psychopathy, but psychopathy is not characterised by malevolent joy at the suffering of others.

Obviously, Mr. Rai, you don’t know the Islamic State.

In an ideal world, humanitarian intervention would fall to a world body. But intervention on that scale is outside the mandate of the United Nations (I guess — I’m no expert on the UN) and, anyway, the votes of the members of the Security Council negate each other, thus canceling out strong action. Meanwhile, because of too many extenuating circumstances — such as that it can never seem to resist seeing opportunity in a crisis (that is, taking advantage of the situation) — the United States is better off keeping its troops away from the action. While sending in more troops at a remove from the action to train Iraqi forces, President Obama seems to recognize that.

Meanwhile, this aging lefty hasn’t yet given up hope for (however much reviled by most factions) world government — one strong enough to negotiate with the Islamic State and contribute to the development of the impoverished areas that the Islamic State inhabits, and one strong enough to intervene militarily if necessary.