Is There a Moral Defense for Barbarism?
Here’s a relevant moral question, in light of recent events: Is there ever a moral justification for savagery? To be more specific, can cruel, tortuous killings of civilians be be defended on the basis of some unique array of circumstances — like extreme oppression or “colonization” of a population?
Our Most Recent Example
What took place in Israel on October 7th of this year was far from the first time in history that civilians were attacked and slaughtered. Even a general knowledge of history reminds us of Viking raids, Mongolian hordes, wayward Crusaders, certain Native American tribes (on the giving and receiving end), and I could go on. This was by no means even a first for Jews.
And just how bad was this event? How does it compare with the disturbing historical accounts of the examples above? Well, allow me to caution you before I offer the following brief but nevertheless terrible summary of what has been fairly well established. The links contained in this paragraph will take you to some dark descriptions of unseemly brutality. But on the infamous day last month, a Hamas-planned attack saw hundreds of young men breach the border into Israel and sadistically terrorize civilians in the small communities nearest the border. They murdered some 1,400 people and kidnapped about 250 as hostages.
The world knows how depraved these murders were because the terrorists filmed a lot of it themselves with go-pros and body cams in order to show everyone and take pride in their cruelties. Most of that footage hasn’t been widely released because it is too disturbing for public viewing. Some journalists have been allowed to view it and probably wish they hadn’t. And of course there’s the abundance of carnage left behind as Israeli military and forensic teams documented the grisly scenes. The few who are denying that these things took place are, at this point, in the category of Holocaust deniers. They’re not serious participants in the conversation.
The true barbarism of this attack is in the macabre details. They include a lot of torture, cutting off of body parts in front of family members, babies baked in ovens, toddler decapitations, burning people alive, the rape of women, children, and even corpses. It is a carnival of ghastly depravity that a misanthropic horror writer might envision in his most suicidal moments. Part of the utter madness of is explained by the fact that it was apparently drug-fueled. The amphetamine jacked them far enough out of their minds to remove any remaining restraints of a person with an actual soul, allowing them to perpetrate these shockingly gruesome and ungodly acts against fellow human beings.
The Morality of Killing
The taking of human life is serious business, and questions about how or when it could be justified top the list of contentious ethical debates. The killing of soldiers in war? Debated. Certain quantities of inevitable civilian collateral damage? Debated. Capital punishment for certain murderers? Debated. Killing a person in self-defense? Debated.
All of these have been alternatively condemned and justified by perfectly sane and competent thinkers who have been able to offer respectable philosophical arguments for their side. By contrast, the wanton slaughter of women and children does not have a rich history of debate. Intentional cruelty and murder of civilians has — can you believe it? — typically been assumed as obviously immoral.
The only serious discussion regarding torture has been whether or not military personnel are justified in using “enhanced interrogation” methods that would qualify as torture against specific criminals (like terrorists) in order to extract vital information that could save other people’s lives. And again, it is hotly debated. Torture of civilians simply to terrorize is a completely different matter. Outside of terrorist organizations, it has no defenders.
The Case for Barbarism
Spoiler: the case for barbarism is that there’s NOT one. Ask yourself if you’ve heard one, and in the very unlikely event you have, what kind of case was made? Did it strike you as sane or reasonable? Play devil’s advocate: can you come up with any kind of creative argument to justify savagery of that sort?
The fact is that cruel mistreatment and murder of non-combatants has been universally seen for what it so clearly is: evil. That hasn’t kept it from happening at times, same as with other evils. But no justification for it exists. It’s almost a non-negotiable for civilization itself that this be condemned; and if rogue actors in your military engage in it, they are to be convicted and severely punished, as their society openly repudiates them.
The Christianized West has always had a kind of code for warfare. There is an entire field of ethics, with a sizable literature, governing the morality/justice of going to war (jus ad bellum), and how war ought to be conducted once you’re in it (jus in bello). Consult military historians, war documentaries, the biographies of famous generals, and you will see these themes repeatedly.
Even in the much maligned Middle Ages we see the chivalric code of knights governing certain moral rules of warfare. Shakespeare’s heroic Henry V, leading his army to victories in France, issues the warning that any soldier who robs or mistreats the French townspeople will be hanged (Act III, Scene 6). For fighting men in the 1400s, even in the midst of bloody medieval field combat, civilians aren’t to be abused.
That sentiment has remained. In the modern world we have international rules about this (see the Geneva Convention on non-combatants). Public feelings are not ambiguous on crimes in war. In the 60s Americans were outraged at reports of the murders of villagers during the Vietnam war (just Google “My Lai”). It led to trials and severe punishments. When in 2004 it was reported that American soldiers in the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib had subjected detainees to humiliation, torture and even alleged deaths, it caused a national uproar. Even Americans who fully support a given war will not stand for sadism and cruelty on the part of their fighting men and women.
Capital punishment itself has always included the notion of a speedy and humane death. The Romans, of course, defied that idea with crucifixion for some (enslaved non-citizen criminals or others) but they gave their citizens the right to a quick beheading with a sharpened ax in the hand of a skilled executioner. For much of history hanging was considered humane, as was the firing squad later.
No crime is so heinous that we would justify barbaric torture as a sentence. And no circumstance of oppression gives license for depravity. Can you imagine the colonial armies of George Washington shipping terror squads overseas to invade England’s coastal villages in order to butcher British families in their beds? After all, England was the imperialist oppressor, so it would be morally OK to torture, rape, and slaughter their civilians, right? Of course not. Or imagine Allied troops going into German neighborhoods to cut off children’s ears and hands in front of their parents for terror-sport. Surely that would be fine since they (whether overtly or implicitly) supported a Nazi government. These satirical hypotheticals are not taken seriously, nor should they be.
Barbarism is Demonic
A big part of what makes it so clear to our moral intuitions that the above scenarios can never be defended is that their sheer evil is so palpable to us. Barbarism as we’re discussing it here goes beyond typical sins, even the sin of murder. I can make sense of people in certain situations having motives to murder — jealousy, greed, revenge, and so on — all sinful motives tempting someone toward a grave sin. But, being human and knowing our nature, I can see how it comes to pass.
What I can’t make sense of is the capacity of someone to gouge the eyes from children, to set the elderly aflame, to put sledge hammers to skulls of pregnant women. Demon-inspired sadism of this sort reportedly took place in Israeli towns. Again, there’s sin, and then there’s what seems like a dark pathological presence of Satan himself, directing people out of their own humanity, making them wild, bloodthirsty devils.
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The terrorists consider themselves very religious. You would have to be very religious in one sense to do something like this — meaning, the mundane motivations of the ordinary secular existence cannot reach this depth of evil any more than they can rise to a significant level of joy or meaning. For something like this, it takes an other-worldly energy. And not all of the forces operating in the unseen spiritual realm are good.
Ask yourself, what sort of deity do you most readily associate with a zombie-like blood-lust that would lead people to revel in gore, to commit grisly cruelties as if performing a religious rite? Any images or forms come to mind? There’s really only one supernatural being in my worldview who would command child rape and necrophilia, who would smile upon the howling, dancing, worshipful celebrations, even as the mauled, twitching corpses of the murdered form the artwork of their sanctuary and as the odor of blood, smoke, and sulfur waft like incense.
The god of these festivities has long overseen his own “great commission” to steal, kill, and destroy. He loves to hear the repeated chants that he is “great” by his depraved worshippers, who, in their trance-like state, don’t recognize at whose altar they’re serving.
Whatever else we believe about the politics of the Middle East, this conclusion is iron-clad and non-negotiable: The bloody savagery of the Hamas invasion has no conceivable justification. The present inability of so many people to see something so plain and obvious is a very bad sign for the status and future of our civilization.
Clint Roberts is an adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma and Southern Nazarene University.
Originally published at Clint’s Substack “Fallacy Fight Club.” Reprinted with permission.