Malignancies: Ignoring Evil Is No Option

There’s nothing remotely funny, of course, about rabid Islamists beheading innocent Westerners they have kidnapped (or their fellow Muslims, for that matter).

Yet, there is something bizarrely droll about the characterization of such slaughter, and in particular its filming and the dissemination of the resultant videos, as a “recruitment tool.” According to experts like Peter Neumann, who directs a center for the study of political violence in London, that is the videos’ goal, based on past successes in attracting new recruits.

What I found humorous was the unthinkability (to put it mildly) of any group of normal human beings seeking adherents by murdering people on camera. Can you imagine the Mormon Church cutting off the heads of gentiles (its name for non-Mormons) in order to attract worshippers? The Republican party, to entice independents? The Rotary Club, to garner new members? The local Jewish Federation, to lure donors? You get the droll.

And then the all-too-serious question presents itself: What does it say about a cause that it attracts people by means of the gleeful shedding of innocent blood? And a corollary: What does it say about the people so attracted?

It is fashionable to seek to “understand” forces and individuals who do malevolent things, to put the acts into a “context” that makes them —if not justifiable — at least comprehensible. There are times, though, when what seems to be evil is, in fact, just evil, pure and simple. Like our times.

Likewise fashionable these days are attempts to characterize the Islamic State movement, against which President Obama has effectively declared war (explaining that “There can be no reasoning — no negotiation — with this brand of evil”), and other Islamist hordes as not warranting a determined response by the civilized global community.

For all the odiousness of the groups’ means, the geopolitical fashionistas (hesitant Europeans and American isolationists alike) argue, such militants don’t threaten us directly. ISIS’s goal, in particular, is only to establish a Muslim caliphate in Eastern lands, not to harm the West. We have no camel in such races, they protest, no business involving our country in disputes that, in the end, are between this version of Islam and that version of Islam (and those, and those other ones too).

Intriguingly, though, current events have served up a compelling metaphor here.

For there is another deadly world crisis out there, likewise far away; and the larger world is determined, rightly, to deal with it. No one counsels ignoring it for its distance.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the number of Ebola cases in West Africa is increasing, and has asked U.N. member states to donate $1 billion to tackle the epidemic. President Obama announced that the United States will send troops, material to build field hospitals, additional health- care workers and medical supplies to the tune of $75 million. The World Bank is promising $200 million to deal with the crisis. The World Health Organization has pledged $100 million. Britain is delivering a field hospital to the area. $181 million has been promised from the European Union and $50 million from the Gates Foundation.

Ebola, which results in uncontrolled internal and external bleeding and easily spreads itself around, is evil. Yes, yes, the virus is morally innocent, just doing what its DNA compels it to do.  But from the perspective of thinking, feeling human beings who affirm life as an invaluable gift, the disease is a scourge, something to be fought and driven into submission, ideally eradicated — even though it is “way over there,” doesn’t threaten most of us directly and, historically, has asserted itself only on the African continent.

Millions of people in Africa are threatened by Ebola, and it is not easily contained. It thrives on ignorance (like that of villagers who have killed health workers, believing they are the cause of the disease) and attacks not only those who contract it casually but exemplary human beings (like such health workers) as well.

Is not the biological scourge we all know must be routed a stunning counterpart to the sociopathic one that produces its own rivers of blood?

Comparing people to a disease has, understandably, become anathema in civil discourse. But such rhetoric is offensive because it is employed imprecisely or carelessly. Sometimes, though, it is an apt metaphor. Like when applied to groups that exult in slaughter of human beings, that seek to spread and whose recruitment tools include mugging behind masks for the cameras before cheerfully slitting throats.