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How Can People Be So Evil? The Brutality of ISIS


Refugees fleeing from ISIS in Kobane. Source: Sebastian Backhaus, CreativeCommons
Refugees fleeing from ISIS in Kobane. Source: Sebastian Backhaus, CreativeCommons

The brutality of the most recent killing  of a Jordanian air force pilot  by the terrorist group ISIS has shocked the world, even after multiple beheadings and other news of barbaric and systematic human rights violations. This begs the question: why are human beings so ruthless, so cruel, so brutal; killing without empathy for the person, his or her famlily and loved ones? History is full of examples – think about the Holocaust that left 9 Million people dead, or the genocide in Rwanda, during which 800,000 people were killed in just 100 days.

Fact is: brutality is part of human nature. Experiments and studies, like the Milgram experiment or the Stanford Prison experiment, just to name a few, have clearly shown that it’s not just a couple of insane, sadistic, or mean persons who commit cruelties. It’s your average guy (yes, they are usually male), your neighbor, friend, or even relative who is likely to commit these horrific crimes. These are people with kids, wives, and mothers at home; people they love and protect. As Douglas Kelly, the investigating psychiatrist of the Nuremberg Tribunal prosecuting Nazi crimes, famously wrote: “From our findings, we must conclude not only that such personalities are not unique or insane, but also that they could be duplicated in any country of the world today.”  This is shocking, hard to absorb.  But sadly, it’s the truth.

Brutality has clear psychological, strategic, and ideological objectives.

Human behavior is heavily shaped by the circumstances. Violent behavior is often a response to real or perceived difficult life situations. We all want to make sure that we and our loved ones are safe from physical and psychological harm. Self-protection and protection of our families can lead us to sacrificing others, particularly if people are faced with the decision of engaging in violence or becoming victims themselves. Often, attack seems to be the best strategy of the defense – we project our own fears onto others; we attack because we suspect the others are about to attack us. Fear is among the most powerful reasons for cruelty. As philosopher Edmund Burke writes, “[n]o power so effectively robs the mind of all of its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”

We are often powerless in these difficult life situations, during war, conflict, natural disasters, or extreme poverty. We are unable to bring about actual change to our condition, and instead we try to cope with the circumstances as best as we can, which often includes scapegoating, stereotyping, and looking for someone else to blame for our misery. Propensity for violent behavior is exacerbated if the structure and culture of the society allows, or even encourages, the use of aggression. If discrimination of one group by another is part of every day life, for example, if one group feels superior to others, or if there is a strong belief in hierarchy and authority, the use of violence is often condoned by the society. In some cases, mistreatment and the use of physical force is institutionalized and thus considered normal. In addition, if people actually use violence and to what extent depends on the moment and has to do with group dynamics: peer encouragement and peer pressure, particularly combined with alcohol, drugs and other forms of intoxication are known to be lead causes for particularly brutal behavior. Inhibitions are gone, expectations and bloodlust on the rise.

Persecution of Yazidis by ISIS (Creative Commons)
Persecution of Yazidis by ISIS (Creative Commons)

Once fears take over and the circle of violence has begun, it is very difficult to stop. Revenge and retaliation serve as powerful motives. Dehumanization of others is common. Past humiliation and perceived threats cloud the mind. The achievement of the greater goal is the only thing that matters, and is worth sacrificing everything, even your own life and that of others. Violence becomes systemic, seen as the only way to achieve objectives. It becomes an end in itself.  All sense of humanity is destroyed. It turns “normal” men into  monsters, capable of committing the worst crimes with no mercy.

And this is where ISIS comes in.

ISIS’ goal is to establish a broader Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The enemy is anyone who opposes this goal, particularly the West and Muslim moderates. For this ultimate objective, any and all means are justified.

Cruelty and brutality are seen as the perfect way to get want they want. As Frida Ghitis writes, “[c]ruelty communicates fearlessness, and fearlessness, coupled with battlefield success, is an irresistible draw.” Brutality is a deliberate policy, born out of radical ideology, humiliation, and fear. It’s a strategy to “brand” the group, to mobilize and recruit followers, and to execute the plan to conquer Syria and Iraq efficiently and systematically.Not just by beheading and burning foreign journalists, aid workers, and military personnel, but also by attacking the population in those territories, particularly the most vulnerable parts, such as minorities, women and children. We all remember what they did to the Yazidi minority last summerISIS’s ultraviolence is designed to cement its rule by terrifying the population into submission.

Violence like this is not new. It’s not even uncommon. Again, think about the Nazi genocide, or the Khmer Rouge reign of Cambodia. Look to the Central African Republic or northern Nigeria right at this moment. What’s different is that that ISIS doesn’t hide its cruelty, that brutality is what the organization is known for. That cruelty is part of the plan, part of what has attracted followers and made it so successful.  I’m pretty sure that if you asked people what ISIS’ goal is, not too many would know, but if you asked what they know about ISIS, they would talk about the extreme violence.

Kurdish man in Kobane. Source: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images
Kurdish man in Kobane. Source: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

What does this mean for the future? We can only hope that the burning of the Jordanian pilot yesterday might have crossed a line. That people who support ISIS’ goals will turn away from the organization because of its cruelty. That the brutality of ISIS, one of their “recruiting tools”, turns against them. There are certainly indications that this might be the case and that they could end up loosing what little support they had in the Muslim world. There is likely to be a backlash against ISIS, the prospects of which are a flicker of hope in all the turmoil and horribleness that we’ve seen. If ISIS deprives itself of a strong basis, it will be easier to be dealt with.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.