How are we to make sense of a phenomenon like ISIL?  A group of human beings who engage in acts of unspeakable cruelty with no apparent compunctions whatsoever.    In a powerful column yesterday, the NY Times’ Roger Cohen argues that decent human beings simply cannot understand such evil, and shouldn’t even try to understand it.  Cohen cites the novelist Martin Amis’s discussion of the barbarities of the Nazis:

Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify.   Let me explain: ‘understanding’ a proposal or human behavior means to ‘contain’ it, contain its author, put oneself in his place, identify with him.

But can we identify with a Hitler or a Himmler?  Do we want to?  Amis in turn quotes the Italian Jewish concentration camp survivor Primo Levi: “Perhaps it is desirable that their words (and also, unfortunately, their deeds) cannot be comprehensible to us.  They are nonhuman words and deeds, really counter human.”

So, Cohen concludes, we are not obliged to try to understand a counter human phenomenon like ISIL; we are obliged to do no more and no less than try to destroy it.

I think Cohen is wrong.  And Amis is wrong to elide the difference between understanding and justifying (“…to understand is almost to justify”). Would he claim that criminologists, who seek to understand the causes of crime, thereby seek to justify crime?  We may indeed be ultimately incapable of understanding the depravity of an ISIL or an Al Qaeda, but we have to try in order the better to fight them.   Not to try is to engage in a kind of intellectual disarmament.

Yes, understanding can sometimes lead to forgiveness, but there is nothing inevitable about that.  It should be possible to hold firm to the conviction that certain acts are unjustifiable under any circumstances; there is no reason that understanding should intrude on that conviction.

The rejection of understanding may also serve as a too-convenient cover for self-exculpation. The United States, after all, did have something to do with the origins of ISIL: we invaded Iraq.   That fact cannot serve as an excuse for ISIL’s wanton violence against innocents, but it is a fact well worth remembering as we try to figure out where we go from here: would a new invasion accomplish what the first one did not?

Maybe it’s my hopelessly analytic cast of mind.  I generally assume that understanding is always better than not understanding.  So, however daunting, the attempt to understand important phenomena is always worthwhile, and perhaps obligatory.



  1. Judy Robinson October 18, 2014 at 9:55 am

    Tony, I agree about the short-sightedness of the position that we can never understand those who perpetrate atrocities because they are not human beings like us. Unfortunately, large-scale savage cruelty against civilians recurs regularly throughout human history, so viewing this behavior as “not human” is sadly unrealistic.

    Primo Levi must get a pass on this — no one, in my view, has the right to criticize the mental processes that allowed survival in the camps. But for the rest of us, closing ourselves off from knowledge of how a human being arrives at readiness to engage in such “inhuman” behavior is as counter-productive — and dangerous — as all the other forms of willful ignorance one can name.

    To understand the motivation is not to condone the behavior. But refusing to understand the conditions under which some human beings are motivated to behavior which most others find profoundly repugnant, is to allow those conditions to recur again and again.

  2. Judy Brown November 24, 2014 at 11:23 am

    I think it can best be understood within the context of social psychology.

    I personally have become fascinated in the last few years with cult-tactic groups, cognitive errors, and the power of social influence. I know the “Cult” word always causes eyebrows to go up among Americans, who all want to believe “That’s ridiculous! There’s no such thing as brain washing! Only idiots fall for that! Cults, please, that’s crazy. I’m American! I think for myself! Smart people think for themselves”.

    I myself have come to think rather that we have the opportunity to think for ourselves, but few of us really know how to fully take advantage of this opportunity.

    We are all susceptible to social influence, particularly if we are at a vulnerable point in our lives. Cult tactic groups–and it’s a spectrum, and sometimes a bright line is difficult to draw–are really just a more extreme and negative form of social influence tactics that all humans use, usually in relatively benign ways, on a daily basis in negotiating our way through our lives. Eric Hoffer wrote about it in The True Believer. Lifton wrote about it. More recently social psychologist Philip Zimbardo readily explained the hard to conceive of Abu Ghraib situation in those terms. The Asch Conformity Experiment, the Smoke Filled Room Experiment, the Stanley Milgram Experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment and others show how very susceptible we all are to the power of social influence. Steve Hassan’s book Freedom of Mind is a pretty good practical book on the subject of coercive control and negative social influence. The recent book Thinking Fast and Slow demonstrates exhaustively how prone we all are, even the highly intelligent, to cognitive errors. Ad agencies exploit these vulnerabilities of our minds all the time. The unscrupulous use these vulnerabilities to further their own agendas with more criminal results. Bernie Madoff, Enron, Amway/Multi-Level Marketing pyramid scams, coercive superstitious religions (Joseph Smith, David Koresh, Warren Jeffs etc), The Power of Attraction hucksters, “American Hustle”, conmen of all stripes, it goes on and on and on. So much of it has to do with social influence. Then there are the scary mass political movements such as you mention here that utilize the same techniques. For example the classic “us versus them” tactic which solidifies commitment to the group among members, and can also be used in worst cases to justify genocide or other violent acts.

    Critical thinking is truly quite difficult. Being the Lone Wolf can be crazy-making. Group Think is a hell of a drug.

    It’s all very fascinating, there is a huge body of overlapping work that all relates to this general area of social psychology. IMO, it fully explains ISIL.

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