A memory invades: it is of my first significant, disequilibrating confrontation with the reality of human evil. At four or five-years-old I had descended the stairs in our old family home to find my father watching a telecast of what I would realize years later to be Les Miserables. Unsettled by the depiction of a savage-looking, chain-bound convict toiling in backbreaking labor, I took him to be a “bad man.” When I learned, rather, that he was imprisoned for stealing bread to feed his starving family I was distressed, bewildered, threatened, and angry, and did what a child can do in such moments: I made a noise like a muffled howl and stumbled away in tears. I intuited, though I could not have then articulated, a three-tiered indication that all is not right in our world: that what-ought-not-to- be often is; that I yearn for the way things ought to be; and that there resides within me a consequent moral indignation that strikes like tinder at what-ought-not-to-be and determines to find remedy.
Rage matters. I am not talking here about a directionless passion lashing out without scruples and destroying everything within reach. There is a rage, a white-hot indignation, which does not initiate but is ignited by, directed toward, and proportionately reactive to a profoundly disordering injustice. This is to say that, on particular occasions, rage is appropriate because it is rational. Following Augustine, the late political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain understood emotions could be a mode of thought, embodied thought, that bore epistemological significance – helping us to know what we cannot help knowing. She understood we must not end with emotions but neither ought we to discount them. We need to pay attention to what we find “offensive,” “repulsive, “and distasteful” for it might signal to us that something really fundamental has been violated.
What am I going on about? I have just viewed the horrific recording of the burning of 1st Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, the Jordanian pilot murdered by ISIS. And it is time for rage.
In the days to come there will be much discussion and decisions made about proper responses. One can hope it will be proportionately, discriminately, and effectively retributive. What I want to consider here, however, is a different debate. CNN’s Tony Maddox has given several interviews explaining the network’s decision to not show the video. He rightly calls the spectacle “obscene” and insists there is “absolutely no editorial justification for showing it at all.” To be sure, it is not that CNN is trying to hide what has happened, certainly not entirely, as they have fully reported what occurred and described the video to a degree that, in Maddox’s view, “is deeply and profoundly disturbing…out-and-out appalling.” But to show the video itself, he persists, “makes one despair…nothing can be gained from showing that.” I understand this position and it’s not entirely unreasonable. But I don’t agree.
My personal experiences, both living abroad and domestically, suggest that many of the dominant western ways of thinking – even or especially within Christian communities – are increasingly maudlin and desiccate our resolve to deal effectively with evil. We need to be reminded about what it is we’re talking about when we talk about malevolence – what we mean when we say that ISIS is evil. Moral evaluation is embedded in our descriptions of reality; to describe is, itself, a moral action. We need help getting the descriptions right. Observe the rancor over American Sniper and the accusations that Chris Kyle was a racist because he called the enemy insurgents ‘savages’. He was referring to enemies who shielded themselves with children, used children as mules for IEDs, pressed children into retrieving weapons from fallen insurgents in the open streets. Savages exist and we need to call them what they are: they are those who desecrate kids, they are those who burn caged prisoners to death. Other people’s descriptions of events do not appear to be enough. I believe this, in part, because we are not yet angry enough. We feign anger, we talk about red lines not being crossed, or listen to others do so, but, when crossed, we largely prove our bluster. I am not saying watching a video will bring clarity to a complex situation or steel our resolve to press for remedy. But if it makes us mad, it might prove the lie to the CNN executive’s claim that there is nothing to be gained by showing the film. Rage, here, is a decent place to start.
There are those who insist that because ISIS wants the media to show the video we should do all we can to avoid doing that. They point to the technically slick production, the thumping music, the terror-chic of it all, and insist we imbibe their propaganda by viewing it. But that’s just it – ISIS has made murder a dog and pony show. To see the video is to witness the arrogant demeanor of killers indulging in deliberate sadism, the swagger of criminals who take extraordinary pleasure in death, who celebrate atrocity. As with viewing Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, we are made to recognize that, like the fascists, ISIS is not interested in justice, or the deployment of force for the end of peace – they are after subjugation and self-glory. It is important that we know this and important that we are cognizant of the costs of that subjugation. It is important that we feel it viscerally. The video makes all these things clear.
I realize that ISIS releases such videos as warnings – not just to their near neighbors but to the United States – and, with this one, US fighter pilots. They mean to frighten us into keeping out of the fight. But if the anger and protests against ISIS in Jordan, and insufficient US resolve, prove enduring, there is reason to hope they have overplayed their hand. One might recall the execution of Miguel Pro, a Mexican Jesuit martyred by a firing squad in 1927 during Mexico’s wave of anti-Catholic persecution. Pro declined a blindfold, forgave his enemies, and held his arms out in imitation of the crucified Christ. The government blundered by publishing photographs of Pro’s execution to serve as a deterrent to potential adversaries. However, the photographs turned out to be so popular among Mexican Catholics that within a week it was illegal to possess one. While these are vastly different cultural moments and while video will never be a thing venerated, it might be remembered and it might be a goad toward a unified response to the ISIS threat.
Indeed, the video ought to be remembered. And when we begin to forget about it we ought to view it again. While there are good things in the world that we must never forget, such occasions as the present one reminds us there are some terrible infamies that also must always be remembered. Such things, too, ought to be fixed in our minds and hearts, and talked about when we sit at home, or lie down, or rise up, or pass from our houses and walk along the road.
Marc LiVecche is a PhD student at University of Chicago Divinity School and protégé of the late Jean Bethke Elshtain.Google+