Another War, Another Evil: Haven’t We Learned That the Devil Cannot Be Slain?

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Once again the drums of war are beating a familiar and inevitable tune.

Today’s British Parliamentary recall, as to be expected, was mere formality. There is no debate really when there are evil beasts to be slain. What is at stake here represents more than some humanitarian commitment to save strangers from the terrifying rampage of ISIS. Unless we act now, we are told, what we see happening on the desert plains will soon become a feature of life on our streets. We must engage because it is our security that is on the line. Or at least that is the official narrative.

All this sounds eerily familiar. In fact, it follows a very well-rehearsed strategy, where slowly but surely the public is sold the idea of the need for violence to cure the world’s ills. It begins with stories and images of people suffering. This leads to rightful condemnation of the violence and the disregard for human life.

If you continually bomb a people, invade a land, appropriate its resources, torture its children, imprison and humiliate its fathers, and tear apart the fabric of the social order, there is direct responsibility for the radicalization to follow.

Gradually, what takes place overseas is situated within a broader political frame, as local violence is increasingly presented as a threat to global security, peace and prosperity. The public can then relate to the plight, for now it is their lives and existence on the line. War thus becomes inevitable, though we’d prefer to call it by some other name, as declarations of war are fraught with all kinds of messy legalities.

Any moral concerns here can be easily overcome if the fight is presented in absolute terms. The war is necessary because it is against the forces of evil in the world. David Cameron reaffirmed this position in his respects to the horrifying beheading of British Aid worker, David Haines, calling the filmed atrocity a “pure act of evil.”

Such reliance upon this all-too-theological expression has in fact become a hallmark of politics in the post-9/11 periods. George Bush Jr. famously declared that he “wanted to rid the world of evil,” whereas Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech read more as a Treatise for War in the 21st Century, noting on the need for violence, “Make no mistake, evil does exist in this world.”

None of this is incidental. The language of evil serves a very clear political function. As the wars on terror have demonstrated, narratives of evil effectively remove historical context, deny truly democratic debate about violence to be carried out in our names, and preclude serious discussion concerning revulsion for certain forms of violence and yet tolerance for more high-tech forms of slaughter.

Dealing with the violence of ISIS requires political contextualization and serious engagement beyond the imminent frame in which their spectacles of violence appear. However abhorrent we might find their actions, it is patently absurd for any leader not to recognize the historical context to this problem. That is not in anyway to justify the violence or to seek to rationalize its occurrence. But if you continually bomb a people, invade a land, appropriate its resources, torture its children, imprison and humiliate its fathers, and tear apart the fabric of the social order, there is direct responsibility for the radicalization to follow.

Since the democratic vote continues to be denied, for it seems decisions of warfare are too important to be left to public deliberation, more searching questions need to be asked about the continuous use of violence in the name of creating better futures. Those politicians in favor of the actions will be quick to point out here this it is all about the protection of innocents. How can we stand by and watch the massacre of women and children? And yet as a recent letter to The Guardian reminds:

All the experience of the varied military action taken by the west in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya shows that such interventions kill innocents, destroy infrastructure and fragment societies, and in the process, spread bitterness and violence. While we all reject the politics and methods of Isis, we have to recognise that it is in part a product of the last disastrous intervention, which helped foster sectarianism and regional division.

It is not in any way being suggested here that we should stand back and watch the vulnerable suffering a horrifying fate. It is however to recognise complicity, responsibility and what Noam Chomsky calls the manufacturing of consent, which enables the perpetuation of violence by those on both sides who would have us believe that the world is neatly separated between the forces of good and evil. The slaughter of innocents is intolerable. That much we can agree upon. We must however be alert to the conscious politicisation of suffering, where the intolerable plight of the vulnerable produces a greater tolerance for violent retribution.

Violent ideas in fact thrive in violent conditions. Their outrage is fueled by a perceived sense of injustice and victimization. Countering this requires breaking the cycle of violence, not the retort to violence as usual.

From the perspective of victims – whether they are wilfully targeted or “collateral damages” to use that most dehumanising of terms – there is no such thing as a “Just War.” There are just wars in which the logic of violence and militarism reigns supreme. Every war produces its casualties. It remains shameful that while the many casualties of the wars on terror are humanely, politically, economically and intellectually so self-evident, the violent forces of militarisation carry on regardless. Whilst the idea that we might be able to transform the world for the better has been undone by the interventions of the last decade or so, modalities of violence have merely adapted to now take place at a distance.

Through violence one is never entirely sure what monsters will be created. ISIS proves to be a terrifying example of this. What is more, if history shows us anything, it is that you cannot bomb ideas (however abhorrent we might find them) out of existence. Violent ideas in fact thrive in violent conditions. Their outrage is fueled by a perceived sense of injustice and victimization. Countering this requires breaking the cycle of violence, not the retort to violence as usual.

“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled” wasn’t “convincing the world he didn’t exist.” The Devil’s greatest trick was to convince us all that he might be slain. For as we seek to purge the evil of violence from the world, what takes its place is the necessity of good violence, by good warriors, with good planes, who drop good bombs, upon evil targets to make the world a more humane place. Humanity as such continues to be defined by the wars carried out in its name. It is only by challenging the inevitability of violence that we might even begin to take seriously the task of creating peaceful relations among the world of people.