Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The ‘Moral Hazard’ of Calling ISIS a ‘Cancer’

The New York Times, or at least one Michael J. Boyle, wants us to be careful about calling wickedness wicked:
“But if the ‘war on terror’ has taught us anything, it is that such moralistic language can blind its users to consequences. Describing a group as ‘inexplicable’ and ‘nihilistic,’ as Mr. Kerry did, tends to obscure the group’s strategic aims and preclude further analysis. Resorting to ritualized rhetoric can be a very costly mistake if it leads one to misunderstand an enemy and to take actions that inadvertently help its cause.”
Mr. Boyle is correct to express reserve about Mr. Kerry’s choice of epithets: the behavior of ISIS in Iraq is far from inexplicable and quite strategic, though its consequences are horrific.

But the Times’ concern about moralistic language is misplaced.

Firstly, Mr. Kerry’s descriptors do not really rise to the level of moral judgements. Neither does President Obama’s reference to ISIS as a “cancer” (surely if anything is both implacable and amoral, it is cancer). “Inexplicable” is an expression of bewilderment, not moral certainty. And accusing an enemy of nihilism hardly conveys moral outrage, coming as it does from a career progressive whose own convictions about moral principles are rightly suspect. If Kerry or Obama wanted to employ unambiguously moralistic language, they could simply have called ISIS “evil”, “wicked” or “murderous”.

All three words are manifestly inadequate to describe people who saw off civilians’ heads, record the proceedings and upload them to the Internet. But ritualized rhetoric or not, they might be the strongest language we will get from John Kerry as representative of an administration that has largely sought to accommodate or indulge aggressive Islamic expansion until very recently.

Secondly, Mr. Boyle need have no fear that the Obama administration is likely to become overwrought and respond emotionally. While “cancer”, “inexplicable” and “nihilistic” might pass for emotion in another context, this is politics, where ritualized rhetoric is all you’re gonna get. If the Benghazi fiasco left Hillary Clinton unfazed, I doubt either John Kerry or President Obama is doing any more than telling Americans (and James Foley’s grieving family) what they think the public expects to hear so that, having vented its spleen, it can feel free to return to videogames and beer. 

Mr. Boyle wrongly assumes that “moralizing rhetoric” necessarily entails paralysis or bad judgement:
“Moralizing rhetoric also defines groups on the basis of their tactics rather than their goals. However appalled we might be by a group’s actions, our objective should always be to understand our enemies as they do themselves: in this case, a highly organized insurgency with specific strategic objectives.”
It is possible to do both, don’t you think? One can recognize the moral depravity of a certain set of behaviours while remaining lucid about how best to respond to them. We need not dial back our revulsion in order to remain rational. In fact, to the extent we dial back our revulsion, I would argue that we imperil our rationality. Abandoning an appropriate moral reaction in the interest of understanding our enemies and strategizing more effectively begs the obvious questions: If the murder of James Foley does not provoke moral outrage, what should? And, more importantly, if we are not to moralize, on what basis do we condemn ISIS at all?

All the same, Mr. Boyle is correct to say that an “unplanned path toward open-ended conflict” is a dangerous option, though I think it is unlikely to play out that way.

But a truly Christian response to wicked behaviour may be unequivocally moral and simultaneously clearheaded, as Jude (for one) illustrates:
“Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”
(Jude 1:14)
In context, the “ungodly sinners” are scoffers and division-makers within the church, not head choppers in thrall to a false god (or perhaps using him to bolster a political agenda).

One may debate which is worse. Today, at least, I’m voting for the head choppers.

Jude’s situation is not political, but it is instructive. Jude calls a spade a spade. He doesn’t mince language. He points out that the behavior he condemns will result in judgment, and he leaves that ultimate judgement where it belongs: in the hands of God. He sees things with moral clarity and simultaneously gives instructions to believers about the ungodly that are calm and rational. He is, in the words of Mr. Boyle, quite moralistic. But he hardly lacks understanding of the enemy, and he does not in the least lose sight of the goal of the exercise. He goes on to instruct believers how to deal with the fallout from the actions of wicked men:
“… have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.”
Here he talks about having “mercy” twice over in the context of conduct reprehensible enough to produce genuine fear and hatred of the sin involved.

You can, in fact, do both. A moral response need not be without understanding or strategic clarity.

I hate what we’ve seen and heard with regard to the death of James Foley in the last few days. His beheading was despicable and genuinely wicked. But the Lord offers mercy to his captors and killers, as well as to the much larger number of Muslims that cheered them on from the safety of their Internet connections, provided only that they repent and seek him. That’s the kind of God we have.

I don’t know how the U.S. government will respond to Foley’s murder. I’m not encouraged by their past behavior or by their current rhetoric. But a reasoned and reasonable response is certainly possible. Calling sin ‘sin’ does not preclude reacting to it in a righteous way.

In fact, it is an absolutely necessary prerequisite to it.

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