There’s been a lot of talk about monsters recently on news and comment channels. So Jimmy Savile, abusing his celebrity status to prey sexually on vulnerable children, was a monster. Mohammed Emwazi aka “Jihadi John”, beheading innocent civilians and aid workers in the cause of a global Caliphate, is a monster. And there are countless others in both paedophile and terrorist camps whom the media – and many of us – are eager to label as ‘monsters’, and so write them off as non-human.
A lazy label
Now I agree that what both Savile and Emwazi have done is utterly monstrous. And if someone’s behaviour is monstrous then is it not fair and accurate to label them a monster? Have they not forfeited their right to be treated as fellow human beings? Perhaps yes to an extent, but also no.
The problem with the ‘monster’ label is that it’s lazy, lets us too neatly off the hook, and actually solves nothing. It just means we can conveniently write off these characters as utterly, originally and irredeemably evil and (crucially) not at all like us.
But can we be confident that that is genuinely the case? Are we really so utterly different in kind to them – can we guarantee that we could never, ever under any circumstances or provocation have become what they have become, or have done what they have done? I wish I could, but I’m not so sure. There but for the grace of God… ?
Absolving ourselves of responsibility
Labelling Savile and Emwazi as monsters also means we are nicely absolved of any responsibility for trying to work out what might have led to their actions. It further absolves us of any responsibility for any aspects of our society, our shared values and behaviours and systems that might possibly have contributed to or enabled their becoming as they are. They are simply evil monsters, and must always have been that way; end of story.
And in a strange way, it actually absolves the perpetrators of blame. We don’t blame lions for tearing up gazelles. We probably wouldn’t blame a vampire for sucking blood. Dangerous animals and monsters act according to their nature and instincts. They can of course be exterminated without mercy, but they can’t be held morally accountable for their actions.
But I believe that Savile and Emwazi are responsible for their actions. Which means we have to see them (and treat them) as fellow humans.
So of course in an important sense, Savile and Emwazi are entirely and solely personally responsible for their own actions. They chose what they chose and did what they did, and they alone are finally accountable for that.
And yet… it is rarely if ever the case that people are born entirely evil, emerging from the womb as predatory paedophiles or violent terrorists, nor that these traits and behaviours emerge in a vacuum. That’s not to provide excuses for what such people have become or done. But we do need to understand the reasons and causes if we are to help others not choose these destructive paths, or indeed make sure that we ourselves do not. We can’t afford just to shrug and say ‘they’re monsters, they don’t need reasons’.
So… might there be any ways in which aspects of our societies or systems or governments might have contributed to Savile becoming a predatory paedophile, or to Emwazi becoming a machete-wielding jihadist? This is not to simplistically blame easy targets, to unhelpfully point the finger at scapegoats. But we can probably all think of possible social or political factors that might help to push certain people towards destructive lifestyles, given particular personality traits or (de)formative life events.
Please hear me that I don’t seek to justify the actions of jihadists like Emwazi. But I do wish to understand them, and I don’t wish to evade all responsibility that our country’s actions may have for the rise of radicalised jihadists. We need to understand, for our own sake.
Acts of war?
Emwazi’s and Savile’s cases are very different of course. Most people would agree that sexual predation is utterly wrong, full stop. By contrast, it’s possible to imagine certain contexts or cultures or times in which Emwazi’s acts (while undeniably sickeningly brutal) might not be seen as utterly evil.
In Britain, the ‘Christian’ state routinely tortured, beheaded and burnt dissenters only a few centuries ago (and many have pointed out that Islam is 600 years younger than Christianity). In parts of the world, extreme violence and brutality is simply part of life, a way of survival. And of course, in war, bloody and brutal acts have always been the norm, though recently we’ve had the Geneva convention to keep that within limits.
Emwazi clearly believes that he is engaged in a war on the evil west, something that Bush and Blair’s ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric – and actions – can hardly have helped. In his mind, presumably we are the evil ones, the enemies of true faith and godliness. Peter Kosminsky, director of BBC drama Wolf Hall, interestingly suggested that Islamic State fighters are idealists – fighting for what they see as a holy and righteous cause against the forces of western wickedness. Of course we perceive it very differently.
Now I happen to think we’re right to see Emwazi’s beheadings of civilians as monstrously evil. But in that case, we may need to see some of our own countries’ acts of war and aggression – such as drone strikes that kill civilians – as evil also. We may still decide that they are necessary of course, but we should at least know that we can’t lay claim to all the moral high ground here.
Seeing the other as human
I would argue that the most important factor in both Emwazi’s and Savile’s actions lies in their being able to see their victims as non-people, as less than human. It’s what Nazis did with Jews, and Hutus with Tutsis who they called ‘cockroaches’ during the Rwandan genocide.
If you can see someone else as non-human, whether as a monster or a pest – as unworthy of respect or kindness or fair treatment – then you can commit any brutality or perversion on them without compunction. You can even believe that they deserve it, as Emwazi clearly feels about his victims; or that they are ‘asking for it’, as Savile perhaps imagined about his.
So let’s not follow their example by dehumanising them in return. Whenever we dehumanise others, whoever they are and whatever they’ve done, we diminish ourselves.
The evil within?
I said earlier that no-one’s born evil. But in the Christian story at least, we’re all born ‘evil’ in one sense. There are lots of different ways of interpreting and understanding this, and I no longer really go along with classic ideas of original sin. But we’re surely all born selfish, with instincts and biases towards certain attitudes and behaviours that are not conducive to mature, healthy mutual relationships. There are destructive (and self-destructive) tendencies in all of us; in some senses we’re all our own worst enemies.
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” If no Christian reading this has ever looked in a way they shouldn’t at someone they shouldn’t, I’d be very surprised. I’d be equally surprised if none of us had ever experienced murderous rage.
Of course, crucially, most of us haven’t acted on these impulses. But… if we’d been subject to certain pressures or weaknesses, or we hadn’t been properly socialised, or maybe had just been in a position to indulge our impulses without sanction, is it not possible that some of us might have crossed the line from destructive impulse to destructive action?
In any case, Jesus inconveniently doesn’t seem to draw a distinction between thought and action. ‘Anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart… anyone who is angry with his brother is subject to judgement’. Hebrew hyperbole perhaps, but there’s clearly little room for complacency.
I’ve argued elsewhere for “I’m okay, you’re okay” rather than “we’re miserable sinners”. But in another sense it might be as true to say “I’m a monster, you’re a monster (but by God’s grace we’re okay nonetheless)”.
In Christ, mercy is available to each and every one of us, however far we’ve fallen, however monstrous our thoughts or deeds. Christianity is for bad people, not good. I know I need Christ’s mercy – can I deny it to even Savile or Emwazi if they seek it, or if Christ offers it?
- A bad week to be male – Jimmy Savile and other terrible tales
- ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ vs ‘we’re all miserable sinners’?
- What is sin (and does it matter)?
- The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas