For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds
The impulse to freedom and justice in the face of repression is one of the highest expressions of our humanity. We celebrate those who struggle against tremendous odds to free themselves and their people. We respect those who struggle for justice in the face of tremendous odds. Our heroes are those who undertake these battles.
This impulse, of-course, is not confined to particular people or geography. It’s universal. We yearn to make our way out of injustices of various kinds, from economic to political. We fight for freedoms, to self-determine our own futures, to not be the subject of distant forces who care nothing for us.
In our struggles, the temptation to label an enemy is strong. We want to know who we’re fighting against. From the The Evil Empire to the Axis of Evil, from the barbarian, the Communist, and the suicide-bomber, we dismiss the other. The stories we tell about our enemies are by and large simple. They are bad people who are different from us, they are willing to commit horrific acts of violence and they do not value what we value. They want to curb our freedoms and they want to punish those different from them.
A few days ago reports from the Plateau State in Nigeria emerged of gunmen storming a village and killing 30 people, many of them women and children. In Afghanistan suicide-bombers have killed another 30 people, many of them diplomats, in an attack on a restaurant in Kabul.
Why did these gunmen kill women and children? Why would someone blow themselves up in order to kill IMF officials?
In general, we do not believe that there can be a rational answer to these questions. Clearly the people who undertake such acts are not in control, they have been brainwashed and there can be no excuse for such actions.
This stance however, that they are doing it because they are irrational, poor or stupid ignores the basic fact that all cultures undertake such acts. Drone strike kill women and children, while soldiers voluntarily sacrifice their lives when asked to.
Instead of dismissing the rationales for such horrific actions, we have to grasp that there is actually a logic to them. The logic applies as much to acts of terror on both sides, to both “us” and “them.”
That logic can be best understood through the phrase “the corruption of the best is the worst.”
The USA didn’t invade Iraq with the express political intention of killing babies or causing leukemia in the child population of Basra. The USA invaded Iraq in the name of freedom and democracy. Al Qaida or Boko Haram are not blowing young men up because they think this is a valid goal, they are doing it because they see their fight as being one against repression and injustice.
The problem with all these actions is that they justify the unacceptable in the name of all that’s sacred to us. Such actions are conducted via an appeal to the best of humanity. That’s really the most reliable way of convincing a human being to kill children, to kill defenseless civilians, if to convince them of something more important, to convince of them that they are acting in service of something sacred.
And the appeal to the sacred in justifying actions that compromise our humanity is an act of corruption. Instead of dismissing actions too horrible to contemplate, we need to grasp the underlying logic. We must accept that our societies, so civilized, do this all the time. If we are to fight for freedom and justice, if we are to stop the spiral of violence, then we must grasp the logic of violence. We need to understand that the corruption of the best is the worst.