published Friday, August 29th, 2014

Cook: Turning humans into monsters

The black-clad members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have shown they are capable of many, many things — beheadings, crucifixions, heads-on-stake barbarism. They have buried people alive. They have cut off heads, then tweeted: "this is our ball. It is made of skin #World Cup."

But there is one thing they are not capable of.

They are not capable of becoming monsters, no matter how hard we wish they were.

They remain humans.

Yet we have begun the predictable process of turning them into monsters, by which we recast our current enemy into something alien and nonhuman, nothing less than evil made manifest.

Our most effective tool in doing this is language and the words we use.

The president called ISIS a "cancer." His secretary of state said it was an "inexplicable" evil.

"Must be destroyed," John Kerry tweeted. "Will be crushed."

"Unspeakable barbarism," Marc Thiessen wrote in The Washington Post.

"We should bomb the living Hades out of them," one Times Free Press reader wrote. "They are monsters and should not be left alive. Send them to Hades to join their master."

Such language is a psychological black-ops, a subtle sleight of mind that deludes us into an easy worldview: we = good, they = Satan.

"Condemning the black-clad, masked militants as purely 'evil' is seductive, for it conveys a moral clarity and separates ourselves and our tactics from the enemy and theirs," Michael Boyle writes in his excellent New York Times op-ed.

We see this dynamic usually on the doorstep of war, as the political-media machine girds us for war by framing our opponent as a nonhuman force bent on complete evil. Such demonization opens the door for military action.

"Saddam is the Hitler of the Middle East," retired Gen. William Westmoreland said during the 1990s.

President George H. W. Bush repeatedly made Nazi analogies, even calling Saddam Hussein a "little Hitler." (In the '80s, the White House did the same with Manuel Noriega in Nicaragua, according to Normon Solomon's powerful "War Made Easy.")

LBJ made Hitler analogies in Vietnam. Clinton, too, with Milosevic in Yugoslavia.

Such rhetoric amped up after 9/11 and remains a core part of our War on Terror.

"The hijacking of language is fundamental to war," Chris Hedges writes.

Let me be clear: Do not interpret this as in any way sympathetic to ISIS (or Al-Qaida, Hussein or Milosevic). Their actions are (and were) violent and destructive, and we must construct a foreign policy that seeks the very end of those.

But to personify them as monsters -- and not humans doing monstrous acts -- is problematic for several reasons.

Doing so mystifies and simplifies violence. By demonizing ISIS as monsters, we avoid any real understanding of why they are doing what they do.

Their violence is not "inexplicable" as Kerry said, but has a methodology to it, however brutal. By refusing to understand this, we only bypass any future understanding of the next version of ISIS that we encounter.

History is soaked in ISIS-like mass violence, so why should we continue to assume it can't be explained and understood?

Second, such language allows us to remain innocently foggy-headed about our own violent tendencies.

There is nothing within ISIS that has not already stalked our shores. This is no new form of viciousness; it has crawled the earth for centuries. What degree of difference lies between ISIS and the lynching tree?

Third, it promotes a sloppy understanding of foreign policy, easily lumping ISIS and Al-Qaida together as murky evildoers. Instead, there are huge differences, and it is imperative that we as Americans understand them.

Most of all, this evil-talk is dangerous for our own hearts. It facilitates a hatred -- bomb the living Hades out of them -- that encourages the same warped monstrosity we curse in them to grow in ourselves.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
aae1049 said...

I am A Ok with ISIS being declared monsters, after beheading a beloved American.

August 29, 2014 at 12:23 a.m.
bbswld said...

I nearly always read your articles and often recommend them to others. This one does not fit your normal style - or you are showing yourself to be someone other than who I thought you were. Conservative or liberal, you can't look at these people as anything other than the rabid vermin that they are. While I understand what you are saying - and on some level appreciate your perspective - I think your application of those comments to these "people" is naive. They cowardly hide behind masks and commit unspeakable acts against combatants and non-combatants alike. These are monsters. They are showing us who they are, who they want to be and how they want us to think of them. There is only one answer to this, they must be exterminated. I am as tired of war after war as anyone. I do not want another American service man or woman to die in that desert. But, we can not sit on our hands and do nothing in the face of this pure evil.

August 29, 2014 at 8:43 a.m.
ChattanoogaVol said...

Good grief David. One of your worst yet.

August 29, 2014 at 9:12 a.m.
sagoyewatha said...

ATTABOY,DAVID! You are correctly talking about animistic language that gives a life and a will to behaviors where it does not belong. I have seen all the same words in the Sports section, especially applied to aid our young men to learn how to smash,crush,demolish etc.

August 29, 2014 at 9:52 a.m.
Ki said...

When one takes into account what western and their allied forces have been committing in that region for over half a century, one can conclude the monsters come from all sides. And the term monster may be a mild one used to describe the enemy when compared.

August 29, 2014 at 10:37 a.m.
Rickaroo said...

Not to excuse in any way the monstrous acts that ISIS or other Muslim jihadists have committed; but it's interesting how when our servicemen commit them it's just part of the consequences of war and therefore excusable (even sanctioned in the eyes of God, as far as Christian fundie folk are concerned); but let those on the other side do something heinous and it's "inexpicably evil."

No greater atrocities have been committed by anyone worse than those carried out on a regular and consistent basis than by our troops during the Vietnam war. Those that made the headlines were just the tip of the iceberg. In the end millions of innocent men, women, and children were brutally slaughtered. And what about Napalm? For those who did not die outright from it, they lived the remainder of their lives in horrid agony and deformity. And the U.S. still has not admitted any wrongdoing for that most insidious and mind-numbingly brutal act.

Then there are those instances during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of our troops pissing on corpses, using the heads of the dead as soccer balls....and let's not forget Abu Ghraib (just an instance of our troops having a little fun and letting off some steam, right?)!

Okay, you America-right-or-wrong patriots and you hawks and blood-thirsty dogs of war, use the "evil" word for the atrocities of ISIS and other Muslim jihadists if it makes you feel better. But nobody does evil better than the good ol' U.S. of A.

August 29, 2014 at 12:21 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

Regarding Saddam Hussein: as tyrannical and egomaniacal as he was, the Middle East would be in far better shape today, and likewise our relationship to it, if he were still in power. He ruled with an iron fist, but that is obviously the only form of authority the tribal minded people there can respect. He was a big fish in a little pond, he posed no immediate threat, and he provided a certain stability in the Middle East that America destroyed practically overnight with our knee-jerk and ill-conceived invasion.

August 29, 2014 at 1:12 p.m.
adolphochs said...

I read the Boyle article earlier and now this one. The world would be a better place if my immediate heirs had shut down both papers. I'm getting nauseous spinning in my grave. What a load of claptrap! Yeah, we all need to take responsibility for the Crusades which has made all of these, otherwise wonderful human beings, very very mad at us. If we can just accept these folks as fellow inhabitants of our blue planet who hate our guts and want to destroy everyone of us, we can feel much better about ourselves. What a confused young man!

August 29, 2014 at 1:47 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

Nobody is saying that ISIS isn't dangerous or that all we have to do is talk nice to them and they'll sing kumbaya with us around the campfire. Some sort of action or stategy will be needed to deal with them. But at some point we have to wake up to the fact that we bear responsibility for their very existence. We have reaped what we have sown by invading Iraq in such knee-jerk fashion and overstaying our presence in Afghanistan, to the point of decimating their country and annihilating thousands upon thousands of innocent people. Actions have consequences...and wrongful actions reap terrible consequences! We cannot keep thinking that just because we have the mightiest military in the world all we have to do is flex our military muscle and the rest of the world will stand in awe. We do not instill awe. We just create more terrorists and more reasons for more people to hate us.

As bad as Hussein was, he was a mere puppy compared to the likes of ISIS. You can thank Bush and Cheney for giving a terrorist group like ISIS room to grow and prosper. Or else we could have kept tens of thousands of American troops on the ground indefinitely in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

August 29, 2014 at 2:43 p.m.
RShultz210 said...

REPLY to adolphochs: Oh please! I don't normally agree with this particular individual (handle Rickaroo)but in this case, he is pointing out a simple truth without couching it in Politically Correct terms. War does make monsters out of all of us. If we have a disagreement here at ALL it would simply be that Rickaroo may think that we should not stoop to the level of our enemies. That is his opinion, and I don't have to agree with it to respect it. Napalm is indeed barbaric, but it's one hell of a weapon and IMHO when you are in a war with people who are bent on your destruction, you must use EVERY weapon you have, regardless of what other people think of it. As to Mr. Cook's column, manipulating language is what he does for a living. All I can say about that is this week's effort was definitely not up to par for him. It's sad to see any writer sinking into the pit of Political Correctness, but it seems that it's happening to everyone and not just him. Political Correctness MAY destroy us long before these 7th century fanatics do. I wish that Political Correctness did not force me to leave out or censor words that fit the situation because Dewey's definition i.e. "Political Correctness is a doctrine fostered by a delusional, illogical minority, and rabidly promoted by an unscrupulous mainstream media, which holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a T-*-r-d by the clean end." fits this situation very well. I can't help wondering what people would think if they knew that the term "Politically Correct" originated with a genuinely evil person named Leon Trotsky.

August 29, 2014 at 3:28 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

Those people in Vietnam, who were "bent on our destruction," were only "bent" that way because we were there in the first place, bombing the hell out of their country and killing innocent men, women, and children by the tens of thousands. Just like in Iraq and Afghanistan, we were the invading terrorists, occupying their land and blowing it to smithereens.

As for stooping to the level of our enemies, no, we should not. We should not stoop to torture and barbarism, unless we want to become barbarians ourselves. And many Americans seem to be fine with that...even proud of that! If you think torture works, you watched too many episodes of "24."

August 29, 2014 at 5:15 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

An afterthought: how can any American look at the photos we saw of how our troops were treating the prisoners at Abu Ghraib and not feel thoroughly ashamed?

August 29, 2014 at 5:56 p.m.
librul said...

Thanks, David. I well remember the haughty jingos among us yakking about how we were "going to Afghanistan to re-arrange the rubble" and pasting cartoons on the wall showing F-18s attacking tribesmen with captions like "I'd fly 10,000 miles to smoke a Camel".

Well, when Mall of the Americas blows up, or the Golden Gate Bridge ends up in the bay, or any number of hundreds of other disasters befall this country, the term "blowback" will be on the lips of every citizen and our concept of "justice" will need some real tweaking.

And I think we should immediately gather up all the fundie preachers in this country, put them under the command of idiots like uber-zionist John Hagee, and let them make their best effort at "overcoming the threat of ISIS".

August 30, 2014 at 8:50 a.m.
moon4kat said...

A thoughtful column. I believe we are wise to look at what our own attitudes are doing to us, and ask which are really constructive in the long run.

August 30, 2014 at 9:29 a.m.
Rickaroo said...

"I well remember the haughty jingos among us yakking about how we were "going to Afghanistan to re-arrange the rubble" and pasting cartoons on the wall showing F-18s attacking tribesmen with captions like "I'd fly 10,000 miles to smoke a Camel." - librul

During the Vietnam war era I lost track of the number of times I heard young guys bragging about their eagerness to join up. The saying I heard most often was "I can't wait to get over there and kill me some g##ks" - I can't write the actual word out (it rhymes with spooks); it is one of those words that the TFP automatically censors. They didn't even care to differentiate between the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese. It seemed that, in their eyes, they were all vermin and deserved to be eradicated. Such was the "patriotic" attitude of many young American men at the time.

For a lot of enlistees, war serves as a rite of passage into manhood, and they couldn't care less about the morality of it. They seem to be glad for any excuse to don soldier's gear and do the "manly" thing of testing their mettle in combat.

August 30, 2014 at 2:39 p.m.
please login to post a comment

videos »         

photos »         

e-edition »


Find a Business

400 East 11th St., Chattanooga, TN 37403
General Information (423) 756-6900
Copyright, Permissions, Terms & Conditions, Privacy Policy, Ethics policy - Copyright ©2014, Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
This document may not be reprinted without the express written permission of Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc.