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.