ISIS: An Evil So Great We Dare Not Understand It?

Dennis Loo | October 7, 2014 

On October 2, 2014, The New York Times published an editorial entitled: “The Fundamental Horror of ISIS.” In it the editorial board states,

Comparisons are meaningless at this level of evil, as are attempts to explain the horror by delving into the psychology or rationale of the perpetrators. Even to call what this group does “crimes against humanity” is to put a legalistic spin on raw evil; as Roger Cohen, the New York Times columnist, wrote in a recent piece about ISIS, there is no “why” in the heart of darkness.

ISIS surely is horrid.

However, to throw up one’s hands and claim that trying to understand what’s generating such a group’s horrors is impossible to do, and to claim that calling their acts “crimes against humanity” is to put a “legalistic spin on raw evil,” is a form of raw stupidity.

“Comparisons are meaningless at this level of evil”?

Since when is anything too raw and terrible that you cannot, will not, consider it inadequate, or somehow a diminution of their “raw evil,” to figure it out?

In the Roger Cohen article that the NYT editorial approvingly cites, he states:

I was given pause by Martin Amis’ afterword to his powerful new novel, “The Zone of Interest,” where he probes the “why” of Hitler and quotes both the icicle passage and another from Levi:

“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.” Levi, referring to Hitler, Himmler and the rest, goes on: “Perhaps it is desirable that their words (and also, unfortunately, their deeds) cannot be comprehensible to us. They are non-human words and deeds, really counter-human.”

To understand the Nazis does not mean that you have to excuse them. Understanding does not necessarily mean empathy in the sense of trying to explain why they do what they do and therefore sympathize with it and justify it on some level. The human condition does not mean that you are conceding something that you must not part with when you put yourself in someone else’s place and grasp what they were thinking when they committed horrendous acts. If you really want to grasp why evil is evil and you want to avoid it happening again, then you better understand what happened or else of course you’re going to see it repeated. To call it “counter-human” or “non-human” does not get you anywhere.

It only serves to reduce you to the level of those you consider implacable enemies who kill remorselessly. You are merely justifying the reverse of what your adversary is doing: “We are good, you are irredeemably evil, and therefore anything and everything we do is all right and justifiable.” That is what Cohen in fact ends up saying at the end of his piece: “In this fight, I would say, all means are good.”

This is similar to what war criminal Henry Kissinger said about ISIS:

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said on Sunday that President Barack Obama must respond disproportionately to the beheading of two American journalists by Islamic State fighters.

“When an American is murdered on television for the purpose of terrorizing Americans, there should be a response that you cannot – you would not analyze in terms of a normal response to provocation,” Kissinger said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” 

It is the very same logic that underpins and justifies the US’ use of torture: we are fighting terribly evil people and whatever we do in combatting them, even committing the barbaric act of torture, is justifiable. This is what the NYT editorial is justifying under the guise of nearly inarticulable and anti-rational outrage.

Consider what the NYTimes said and didn’t say about Hitler and the Nazis – a “raw evil” unsurpassed in human history - when they were handed power in Germany. The following is from an analysis by Gary Klein:

“[The NYTimes] tended to misinform and confuse its readers by discounting, ignoring, and even withholding disturbing facts and ominous signs that most other major publications included in their analyses [of Hitler and the Nazis coming to power]. Although it is true that other newspapers (not to mention most political commentators of the time) greeted Hitler's appointment as Germany's chancellor with a lack of alarm, the New York Times deviated from its mainstream counterparts in both the degree and, more important, the duration of its rosy views. That the New York Times failed, by the standards of the time, to provide a reasonably accurate picture of what was happening in Germany was more a function of the paper's own internal idiosyncrasies and deficiencies than of even the behavior of Nazi censors. Moreover, the fact that a paper with the credibility of the Times did such a poor job of reporting raises disturbing questions as to the accuracy of foreign news presentation from even the most trusted of media sources.”[1]

The New York TImes is the paper of record in this country, the most prestigious media outlet in the nation. If it's advising people to suspend reasoning and understanding, then what deeper depths are we going to fall to? And who will step into this breach and this debased reasoning to call people to a radically different path than this disastrous one? "We are the ones we've been waiting for..." If not now, when? If not us, who?

1 Gary Klein, “When the News Doesn’t Fit: The New York Times and Hitler’s First Two Months in Office, February/March 1933,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol. 78, No. 1, Spring 2001.

Dennis Loo is a member of the Steering Committee of World Can't Wait. This article originally appeared on