Essential Threat

During a fascinating survey of shifting attitudes and alliances across the Middle East, Hassan Hassan observes a contradiction within the moral economy of war.

[P]eople have contrasted the West’s response to Foley’s killing by being ready to strike Isis’s bases with the lack of appropriate response to the havoc Isis systematically wreaked for months in the region against Syrians. They pointed out that some of the most atrocious killing happened as the US was preparing to intervene to save stranded Yazidis in northern Iraq.

The disproportion is hardly unfamiliar, because the moral calculus of war is not a numerical calculus. If we aimed – absurdly – to produce an overall incrementally higher ratio of the living to the dead in the world, James Foley’s killing would count as one 190,000th as important as, say, the victims of the Syrian Civil War. We incessantly speak and tweet and write and argue as though such terms must make sense to someone. There are well-financed bright and shiny publishing start-ups seemingly dedicated to the implicit proposition, but it is finally senseless because the category of evil arises in relation to sense or meaning itself: in relation to the life worth living at all, equally the death worth risking, not to quantities ripe for infographical reduction. When we assert that an enemy is “evil” in a way that other enemies who may share similar characteristics are not quite, we mean to say that we cannot tolerate its continued existence, that to do so would imply our own loss of meaning in our own eyes.

The Foley execution can be taken as a tipping point event or last straw, and in its entirety as a defining moment. Speaking with, we are told, a London accent, the executioner directly challenged the President of the United States, extracting a denunciation of American policy from Foley before proceeding to kill him. I have not watched the video in its entirety. Whether the President has done so has, as far as I know, not yet been definitively stated, but, either way, the entire manner of execution amounted to an obscene provocation, even if the challenge was phrased as a warning against further American intervention, as though a humanly and politically conceivable reaction to it would be anything other than retaliatory. In multiple ways, the killer was addressing, and not merely shaming but challenging and perceived to be challenging, “all of us,” in the process elevating Foley’s status to that of liberal martyr. Social media could be observed moving instantly to a war footing, with statements of shock and anger competing with calls neither to watch nor to link to the execution video, accompanied by swift movement on the part of Twitter and YouTube to suppress suspect accounts.

Of course, the West and its allies in the region were already engaged: U.S. intervention on behalf of the Yazidis and the Kurds was the killer’s pretext, but warnings against overreaction and the language of “evil,” which on the day before might have still seemed timely, even in the face of crimes against humanity, by the day after were out of fashion. Foley’s death is for us a death that seems to threaten our own moral and collective life. The overused term “existential threat” always carried this further connotation, but has in recent years been deprecated by vulgar materialism, as though the true existential threat would exclusively be threat of our complete physical destruction. Perhaps the term for what we mean when we identify a threat as evil is “essential threat,” the threat that operates in the realm of symbol and faith rather than weights and measures, and that easily, almost perfunctorily, perhaps necessarily, raises a single victim above a multitude, but not against or instead of them: In light of the ritualized sacrifice of a single man, on the altar of what we cannot help but believe – no possible justification – the many may be revealed to us as allies, as “with us,” perhaps first symbolically, but now also practically. Put simply, Foley’s death marks if it does not itself restore American re-engagement on behalf of those we had all but abandoned in the region.

In this last regard, Hassan and others turn immediately to cautioning against some deceptively pragmatic embrace of the Assad regime, or of its enablers, or of forces whose depredations against Sunnis especially in Iraq and Syria can be taken to have helped co-found the extremist “state.” Some who ridicule the voices of restraint and equivocation may be found as or more furiously condemning those calling for compromise with potential allies. There is a contradiction there, of implicitly mitigating the supposedly immitigable: If the Islamic State simply must be destroyed, in a process that will inevitably cost the lives not only of people like Foley’s killer, but of countless lesser abettors and likely an even greater number of passive bystanders, then it will be natural to seek truces in secondary fights, and explore opportunities for cooperation. Additionally, whether or not the forces Hassan observes combining against the common enemy ever openly agreed to back Assad and others, they will be accused of doing so and, according to one or another or one after another inevitable, purportedly objective analysis, will be shown to have done so. Nor will anyone in a new coalition of the willing, including its  American detachment, be operating with clean hands.

The answer to this dilemma will have to be discovered concretely. The burden on those proposing deals with whichever lesser devils will be to demonstrate not merely the convenience, but the necessity of whatever they have in mind: clearly and specifically, and in relation both to the eradication of the evil and to its replacement. Who precisely is to say exactly what to Bashar al-Assad – and for what precise purpose? Does it damage the proper, necessary, yet all but forgotten objective of separating the Alawite interest from the regime’s? We can then determine if the same purpose can be achieved by any other means, at tolerable costs, or if the compromise can be successfully discounted against the higher aim – which last, by the way, deserves fuller discussion.

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  1. […] videos of the beheading, and then you’re not worried about mission-creep.” I offered my own version of the same argument immediately after the Foley execution: In sum, it is hard to imagine a world in which acts like the […]

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