I’m a monster, you’re a monster – reflecting on ‘Jihadi John’ and Jimmy Savile

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.

Who’s responsible?

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?

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Evil, Sin, World events and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to I’m a monster, you’re a monster – reflecting on ‘Jihadi John’ and Jimmy Savile

  1. Terry says:

    Your post reminds me of the first cartoon here, Harvey: http://jasongoroncy.com/2014/08/22/friday-with-leunig-beheadings-the-worlds-gettings-and-starer-down/

    It also resonates with a large theme running throughout Ruth Scott’s The Power of Imperfection, that we’re all capable of, well, sin.

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  2. ‘I would argue that the most important factor… lies in their being able to see their victims as non-people, as less than human… 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… or that they are ‘asking for it’…’

    Yes – and when society colludes with such people, then society is collectively responsible.

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    • *colludes as in turning a blind eye.

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      • Yes, agreed. Unfortunately human society seems to alternate between turning a blind eye to certain crimes and carrying out witch-hunts for them. So for a long time people collectively ignored child abuse, and now we’re swinging towards the ‘witch-hunt’ end where anyone who’s even suspected of paedophilia becomes a hated social pariah. Neither way is really helpful!

        I’m aware I need to tread carefully here, because I’m not a victim of sexual abuse. But all I do know is that we’re all capable of being monsters in different ways, and setting certain people or certain crimes apart as The Worst or Unforgivable probably isn’t a helpful route towards redemption or healing.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think you ‘trod’ very well and I respect you for doing so. Branding other human beings as monsters, even if we know we would never do what they did, is not helpful. The people who hurt me made choices and they are responsible for those choices. If they were repentant and sorry for what they did, and if they asked God for forgiveness, despite whatever I may feel it’s not up to me who ‘gets in’ to heaven. Ultimately that’s a relief, especially when I recall Jesus’ words ‘pray for your enemies and do good to those who persecute you’. I know I can say, “God, this is all too much for me. You take care of it.” And the burden is lifted.

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          • Thank you! and well said. I can only really speak in theory on this one, but you clearly speak from hard experience.

            I do know that I struggle to forgive certain people whose treatment of me in the past left some emotional scars. But I equally know that I am not in a position to write them off, for I too have been unkind and even cruel at times in my life, to my great regret.

            Something that always gives me pause is looking at things like the Holocaust and realising how very easy it is for ordinary, normally decent humans to get caught up in terrible evils, simply because they were afraid or prejudiced or blind to the suffering and humanity of others. And I know that there but for the grace of God go I.

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            • John Howe says:

              So maybe it is God’s doing after all. Maybe it’s Isaiah 64:8 instead of the Jeremiah one?
              Why does it seem like any good we do is God, but any wrong is all on us. Isn’t Romans 8:20 a beaut? Do so love reading your writing, it’s very thought provoking…I think?

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            • Hi John, thanks for your thoughts! I’m not sure about Isaiah 64:8 (‘We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.’). In context, I don’t think it’s saying that everything we do is ultimately determined by God. It’s more just ‘reminding’ God that he’s our creator and father, and not to be too angry with us for our shortcomings.

              I’m not too sure about Romans 8:20 either – again, I don’t think it means that all bad stuff in the world is God’s choice.

              I agree, it doesn’t often feel like we thank God for all the good and blame ourselves for all the bad. There’s some sense in that – God by nature has to be perfect, whereas we aren’t yet, and we do clearly often make a right mess of things. But I think God wants us to celebrate and enjoy the good in ourselves and each other too, and not just always focus on being ‘miserable sinners’.

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            • Oops, sorry, meant to say ‘It does often feel like we thank God for all the good’, not ‘it doesn’t’!!

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            • doncher1 says:

              Yes, and also the danger we can fall into by following ‘authority’ figures. There are those chilling experiments in which people were told they were taking part in a learning experiment. The authority figure in a lab coat told the ‘teacher’ to administer electric shocks to the ‘learner’ every time they made a mistake. As the shock got stronger, the ‘learners’ ‘ reached the point of crying out they were going to die, but the teacher was told to continue by the authority figure and they did continue to give the shocks! Scary stuff!

              It also makes me think of the novel ‘silence’ by Shusaku Endo, in which the ‘weak’ Christian man, Kichijiro, who continually betrays his fellow Christians and denies his faith to save himself, says that, if he’d lived in a different time and a different place without all the horrific trials that were being brought upon them all, he would have been a good respectable Christian, and I often think about that and the fact that we don’t really know how we’d respond in different situations until we are in them, and I fear that I could too easily be Kichijiro!

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            • Yes, very similar thoughts have gone through my mind! I’d love to think that I’d be brave in the face of brutality and threat, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t. I think you’re absolutely right that we just don’t know how we’d respond in these kinds of situations until we’re in them. Fear for our survival or for our families is a powerful, primal thing and may well temporarily win out over our ethics and beliefs. And I do believe that Jesus understands that.

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  3. John Howe says:

    As an aside, I remember reading somewhere once that if eternal damnation or annihilation were a fact, then the “elect” would have an eternal doubt in God’s power or something like that.

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    • Interesting thought. I’m not sure I believe in the concept of the ‘elect’ (certainly not in any Calvinist kind of way), and I’m no longer all that convinced about eternal damnation either. Annihilation, just possibly.

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  4. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Evan, you again address a difficult, and controversial, situation with wisdom and grace. You said what needs to be said, and you said it well. When looking at ‘monsters’, we rarely consider the monster potential within us. As you say, we dehumanize, marginalize, and write off people of such outrageously evil behavior.

    But I see in you a generous measure of the heart of Jesus. Jesus does not dehumanize ‘monsters’ nor write them off. Instead he loves ‘monsters’ and desires their peace and reconciliation. He sees them as people and has empathy, healing, and mercy for them. He wishes their good, as he does for all of us.

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    • Thanks Tim! That’s very kind of you. I think if I do have anything of the heart of Jesus on this, it’s (paradoxically) because I’m very aware of my own shortcomings. I know I can be (and have been) cruel and all sorts of other things, and I’m (sometimes) genuinely grateful for Jesus’ mercy.

      It’s interesting to look at the New Testament – where Jesus encounters ‘monsters’, he tends to cast evil spirits out of them. I don’t know what I think of this – my liberal modernist view inclines me not to believe in demons in the traditional sense. But I do think that we can become infected or infested with evil in some sense, psychologically and emotionally at least even if not literal demons. And I’m sure Jesus does want to heal that, to liberate people from whatever drags them down towards inhumanity.

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  5. doncher1 says:

    My post was meant to be in response to the paragraph about the holocaust, but it seems to have ended up somewhere else.

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  6. summers-lad says:

    The late Terry Pratchett had a line in one of his Discworld books which shed a helpful light on this topic. Lord Vetinari says to Sam Vimes something along the lines of “Let me tell you something that will help you make sense of the world. You get into trouble because you insist on dividing people into the good and the bad. In fact there are always, and only, the bad people – but some of them are on opposite sides.”
    Obvious echoes of Romans there too. I chewed over that one for a long time when I first read it.

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    • That’s a good way of putting it, and certainly worth thinking about. Though when put that starkly, I find myself wanting to put the opposite view and defend the goodness of humanity! I couldn’t really come down and say ‘people are good’ or ‘people are bad’. People are people, and the constitution of the human person (every human person) is a thorough admixture of badness and goodness, of flawedness and potential, of selfishness and nobility, of the bestial and the divine. Or that’s how it seems to me when I look at the people I know, and at myself.

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      • summers-lad says:

        I agree with you. We are all that mixture. I suspect I’m very close to your thinking on original sin, but one of the things the Terry Pratchett quote does for me is to break down a “me/you” or “us/them” divide, and another is to force me to examine my own motives. At the same time, I greatly value the Quaker practice of “answering that of God in all people”.

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