Cook: Turning humans into monsters

Cook: Turning humans into monsters

August 29th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

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.