Islamic State’s Willing Executioners

Islamic State’s extreme violence cannot be explained away as ‘socially determined’ behaviour. Part of the motivation is the allure of killing itself, writes Simon Cottee.

Screengrab from the ISIS video showing the execution of James Foley

We knew it was coming, because the masked killer in the David Haines beheading video, released three weeks ago by Islamic State, warned us that it would be. But it is still profoundly shocking. We know the purported rationale. ‘We take this opportunity to warn those governments that enter this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State to back off and leave our people alone,’ declares the killer in the Steven Sotloff video. But a rationale doesn’t kill. A human being does, often in concert with other human beings.

The conventional wisdom in liberal-dovish circles is that violence is ‘socially determined’, a product of deeper historical, economic or cultural forces over and above the individual.

A second conventional liberal wisdom is that human beings are fundamentally violence-averse and are by nature naturally predisposed to cooperation rather than conflict.

When or if violence occurs, it is the corrupting nature of society to which we must look for blame, not our human nature.

The emergence of IS and its intensifying barbarism over recent months – the televised beheadings, the mass executions and the brutalisation of children – invites us to reconsider these twin liberal pieties and to confront some unpalatable truths: namely, that not only are we hard-wired for killing, but are intoxicated by the killing spectacle and the God-like power it radiates.

The idea that violence is shaped by the broader social context in which it occurs is by no means false and can tell us much about rates of violence in any given place and time.

Yet it is ill-equipped to explain the specific tenor and nature of IS’s murderous violence. Certainly, there is an instrumental logic to it: awesome violence has worked for IS, terrifying Iraqi government forces into abandoning their posts in the north of the country and propelling it to the front pages of international newspapers and prime-time television. But there is also a richly expressive quality to IS’s violence which resists reduction to a means-ends logic. IS has killed not just with savagery, but with a demonic creativity, energy and exuberance.

This is vividly in evidence in its execution videos and the recent photos uploaded to Twitter of IS fighters posing with severed heads.

In Ordinary Men, a classic study of Reserve Police Battalion 101’s role in the open-air slaughter of countless helpless Jewish civilians, of both sexes and all ages, in occupied Poland between 1941 and 1942, Christopher Browning found that 80-90 per cent of the Battalion’s 500 conscripts – men from all walks of life and many middle- aged – participated in the killing.

According to Browning, the men were anti-Semitic, but they were not fanatics.

Far more important than ideology, he contends, was conformity to the group or peer pressure and the desire for praise, prestige and career advancement. Equally important, too, was the fear of social ridicule, of being seen to be weak or cowardly for not killing. In Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen strongly criticises Browning’s study for failing to explain the initiative, zeal and cruelty of those who participated in the killings. It is a strong argument.

Primo Levi writes of ‘useless violence’, violence ‘with the sole purpose of creating pain’ and ‘always disproportionate to the purpose itself’. Levi recognises what today’s liberal doves don’t want to see: that killing can be a drug which doesn’t just inflict death and terror, but intoxicates the people who do it. As Professor Joanna Bourke has argued, killing can be a divine delight. IS alerts us once again to this demonic secret.

The social psychologist Albert Bandura, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, argues that ‘it requires conducive social conditions rather than monstrous people to produce heinous deeds. Given appropriate social conditions, decent, ordinary people can be led to do extraordinarily cruel things.’

Really? Everything we know about the Western recruits to IS suggests otherwise: they were not coerced or indoctrinated into joining, but actively signed up on their own initiative.

As Shiraz Maher, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation, has pointed out, many are ‘self-starters’ or ‘self-radicalisers’. They are there because the want to be there.

Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, a 23-year-old from London, whom British Intelligence officials believe may be the masked killer in the beheading videos of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines and, most recently, Alan Henning was not ‘led’ into Syria and IS.

And he was not ‘led’ to saw off the heads of four innocent civilians, as is now suspected. None of this was forced on him. He willed it. And he must have worked very hard for it, catapulting himself to the elite status of IS’s beheader-in-chief.

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Abdel Bary’s conviction that doing jihad and killing infidels is right. But there is also no doubting just how empowering all this must be for a former non-entity from Britain.

He was once a minor aspiring rapper.

Now he is a holy warrior who has made it to the big time. ‘I’m back, Obama’, the masked killer said in the Sotloff beheading video. Just how much must he have loved uttering those words.

‘Nothing made me happen. I happened’, proclaims Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs: a sentiment Abdel Bary would no doubt share – and would probably love to say, too.

And we can be certain that there are many more like Abdel Bary, waiting in the wings, desperate to prove their worth and become the new rock stars of global jihad. We need to stop talking about indoctrination and start talking about intoxication and how spectacular violence, and the power and prestige and notoriety it confers on those who can master it, is its own cause.

‘We leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint’, says one of the protagonists of Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain, adding that this is ‘inherent… defining’. Among the innumerable casualties of IS’s violence is the wishful idea that this isn’t so and that the fury comes from outside.

Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at Kent University and author of The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam.

This article first appeared with the Jerusalem Post.


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