The news from Syria and Iraq gets worse and worse. As Washington cranked up its propaganda machine in 2002 and 2003, skeptics said, “This is war we’re talking about.” War is not a splendid little affair that ends with a photo op and a victory speech on an aircraft carrier. That is the propaganda machine congratulating itself. War is what we’ve seen in the region for twelve years. It will not end soon, and no one will offer us speeches when it does end.
Meantime, we have to ask about the combatants in this conflict, the Islamic State jihadists in particular. What is wrong with fighters who seem motivated in equal parts by bloodlust, cruelty, and service to God? You may want to say, “People just don’t think that clearly about what they are doing.” Another, rather sarcastic answer comes from God-skeptics, or atheists: “It is ever thus with crusaders. People commit the most atrocious acts in God’s name. God keeps them pure as they purify the world: any act justifies itself if God commands it.”
Neither answer solves the puzzle, but a sentence from George Eliot’s work lends some insight into the riddle:
There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men. ~ George Eliot, Middlemarch
Observers say fighters for the Islamic State are barbarians straight out of the seventh century. True enough: their theology and system of law hail from another epoch. At the same time, no one is immune from emotions that produce cruelty and other inhuman acts, especially during wartime. During war, you have to choose your side. That done, you set aside fellow-feeling toward others who are not part of your group. You have to kill the others, who have become your enemies. If you can kill with God’s approval, or your country’s approval, or your group’s approval, so much the better.
How can anyone in circumstances of war maintain an integrated morality, whole and healthy, under the imperative of group solidarity? Once you join a group, the group’s general doctrine replaces your fellow-feeling for people not in the group. If its general doctrine declares people outside the group worthy of death, you have an obligation to kill them, to protect your group. You no longer see outsiders as worthy of life, which represents an absolute loss of fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.
The paradox, of course, is that you experience intense fellow-feeling for members of your own group. They are your friends. You are ready to give your life for them. A psychic gulf exists between the feelings you have toward fellows within your group, and the way you regard people outside your group. You understand the concept of fellow-feeling, but group doctrine assures a strict application of the concept. Outsiders – perceived as pests or predators – do not enjoy the group’s protection, nor can they ever penetrate the group’s hate. By this process of destructive dehumanization, one group seeks universality.
That imperative – to destroy others in order to protect your own group – becomes the universal doctrine that consumes your moral core.