One of the questions consuming the meditation of philosophers through the ages: What is the nature of evil? Some suggest that greed is at its core and center. Others suggest it is vengeance. Still others propose that evil lacks a moral core. It is violence, death and destruction without external motive. It is essentially masochism. It enjoys the suffering of others for its own sake.
We like to believe we know evil when we see it. As Americans we recognize evil in others far more often than we see it in ourselves. We see evil whenever our leaders proclaim it and we sanction the full force of the most awesome military machine the world has ever known. When Presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush proclaimed evil in the person of Saddam Hussein, we sanctioned a series of military actions culminating in the most disastrous strategic blunder in modern history.
The warlords in Washington are undaunted. They look at the disintegration of the Middle East, the chaos, destruction and perpetual dysfunction that we ourselves have wrought, and they see opportunity. They see a new personification of evil on earth and they will not rest until they have stirred the American people into yet another irrational cry for war.
They know how it ends. They know the price to be paid will be bloody and pointless yet they do not seem to care. They are the paper generals who sit on the mountaintop and watch the battle unfold below. They will never be called upon to sacrifice. Their children will not be pulled into the fight. They will issue the call for more soldiers and mightier weapons and they will call it patriotism. They will invent victories out of mirages that vanish as quickly as they appear. They will hold parades in their own honor. The will hold press conferences and make television appearances to congratulate themselves. They will reap the benefits of war in political success.
What is evil? Have we not been here before? Have we not seen this movie? Do we not know how it ends or rather how it does not end?
Our Supreme Court has proclaimed that it is not unconstitutional to execute individuals by a means that may and has produced twenty, thirty minutes, even hours of unspeakable suffering before death claims an end. Such executions are beyond doubt cruel but by no means are they unusual. Why? By the time the case reached the ultimate arbiter of constitutional judgment, botched executions had become commonplace. Cruel but not unusual.
What is evil? We have witnessed the beheading of individuals and we are rightfully repulsed but would we not experience the same revulsion if we were compelled to view the execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, an ordeal so horrific that those in charge of the procedure closed the curtains so that the media could not show the world the torture they inflicted? Should we feel differently now that the court has delivered its stamp of approval?
I abhor virtually everything the Islamic State (by any other name) represents. I detest any individual or organization that condones violence in the name of their God, their prophet, their religion or their code of conduct and belief. I am repulsed by the violent and depraved acts they have committed in the name of Islam. I would be no less repulsed if their religion was Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Atheism, Gnosticism, Agnosticism or any other system of belief.
But are the adherents to this particular sect of Islam the embodiment of evil on earth or are they rather the unfortunate products of their culture, upbringing and education? In a very real sense, the soldiers of jihad are the victims of a convergence of historical circumstance: The rise of the radical Saudi-sponsored Madrassas and their prevalence throughout much of the Sunni world combined with the western wars on the sacred grounds of Islam.
The horrendous acts the soldiers of ISIS have committed can only be committed when the enemy has been dehumanized. The leaders of this movement have dehumanized their enemies just as our leaders have dehumanized them.
I suspect that if the followers of Christianity were raised from a tender age to believe in holy war against the followers of rival religions, a significant portion of them would be prepared for the next crusade. Who is more culpable: the brainwashed or those who brainwash? Who is more responsible for the implosion of the Middle East: the soldiers who committed atrocious acts at Abu Ghraib and Fallujah or Cheney, Bush and the Neocon war machine?
The ongoing wars in the Middle East are not a contest of good versus evil. Try as we may the only cause that can claim moral grounding in the regional conflicts is that of the Kurds. They are fighting for their land, their nation and their right to exist as a people. The reason we are not providing the assistance they deserve is that our long-standing ally, the Turks, are vehemently opposed to Kurdish autonomy. The Turks are the traditional oppressors of the Kurdish people and the perpetrators of a genocide that the entire world acknowledges save the Turkish government and us.
As for all the other parties at war throughout the region, none can stand on virtue’s ground. They are flawed human beings led by men exploiting twisted ideologies with unspoken self-interests. The Turks want the Islamic State to crush the Kurds before being contained. The Saudis want to placate the radical jihadists within their borders by continued support of the Madrassas while confining the threat of the Islamic State to nations outside their borders. For this they want the ongoing assistance of the American military in exchange for preferential access to Saudi oil. The military leaders of the Islamic State, many of whom were exiled from the army of Saddam Hussein, want power and territory. The Shias and Sunnis in Iraq continue to want control of their government or at least their regions. The Iranians and the Americans want influence.
The central lesson we should have learned from a history that reaches into the distant past all the way to the present chaos is that we cannot enforce our will on the people of the Middle East by military means. We can stay another decade, spend another three trillion dollars, prop up one party and another, destroy institutions and kill as many soldiers and civilians as we will but in the end we will not prevail. Indeed we will continue to lose ground on all fronts. Our very presence there is the reason ISIS took root and grows to this very day.
We must yield this ground.
The only reason our leaders, the warlords still holding sway in our government, are able to continue this path of endless war is that they are adept at persuading the people that we are fighting evil. Once the American people recognized that we are fighting human beings, not monsters, and we are fighting them on their own land, our part in these futile wars will finally end. It will not require a presidential decree or an act of congress. It only requires the people to stand up and say: No! Enough is enough!
Let the Saudis clean up their own mess. Let the Turks accept their own crimes against humanity and finally leave the Kurds alone. Let the men and women of the region determine their own destinies.
History informs us that in time the will of the people will prevail. The roots of the many conflicts in the region date back centuries but they were exponentially magnified by western interference from the creation of Israel and the British Mandate to the deposing of an elected leader in Iran to a succession of wars for control of Iraqi oil.
The one thing certain is that whatever form and shape the Middle East takes on in the coming years we will not determine it. We can and should help the Kurds in their effort to establish and defend Kurdistan as an independent state. Beyond that we can only do harm.
Image Courtesy of businessinsider.com: A militant Islamist fighter waves a flag and gestures as he takes part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province. (Photo: Reuters)