In the far-from-Christian New York Times, Dexter Filkins discloses a fact emerging from the ISIS rampage in Syria and Iraq as horrifying in its own way as the images of rape, pillage, torture, crucifixions, and decapitations we are now accustomed to seeing every night on TV: evidence that ISIS fighters are less interested in political objectives that their murders can secure than in simply enjoying the murders themselves. Filkins reminds us of Carl von Clausewitz’s famed aphorism that “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” but Filkins inquires what war might look like when there is no political component — that is to say, when people enjoy the ravages and depredations of war as an end in themselves. Which is to say, finally, that some people kill because they, well, love killing other people. Filkins relates that videos produced by ISIS murderers and their collaborators feature eerie, perverse delight in the murders. This reality, he argues, might belie the words by the murderers (most recently, the decapitators of two Americans) that their goal is to discourage American bombing. The actual explanation is found elsewhere: ISIS simply loves killing people and photographing the killing, and expansionary war is a pretext for their perverse and exhibitionist bloodletting. The beauty is in the killing itself — doing it, and watching the doing of it over and over again.
Bruce Mazlish once wrote about both acetic revolution and aesthetic revolution. An aspect of aesthetic revolution is often aesthetic violence — the perverse beauty of destroying human lives, murder as high art. A striking example of aesthetic violence projected on the silver screen is the opening of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Similarly, in the background noises of ISIS ecstasy accompanying videos of suicide missions, beheadings, and crucifixions, we encounter what I’d like to call aesthetic terrorism — terror for its own sake, terror not so much for a political or military objective, but terror because it, well, feels so good.
Aesthetic Terrorism in the Secular Worldview
Aesthetic terrorism is difficult to explain within the postmodern Western democratic, which is to say, militantly secular, worldview. According to militant secularism, the world’s problems are largely reduced to educational or technological challenges that reside in the as-yet-imperfect human system. In the face of humans harming other humans, we simply need better education, better drugs, better brain implants, better electro-chemical bodily stimulation, and so on. In the end, there really can’t be moral transgressions (except maybe racism, sexism, and Christian sexual standards) because morality itself is a spurious category.
This is why secular elites scoffed at the cowboy president, Ronald Reagan, when he referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” and why many of the same people and their ideological successors responded in the same way when George W. Bush referred to the “axis of evil.” Evil simply isn’t real. Like the triune God, it’s a mental construct of unenlightened people.
ISIS’s recent aesthetic terrorism severely tests that thesis. In the Dark Knight, Alfred the butler, played by Michael Caine, explains to Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) the motivations of the nihilistic Joker. He tells the story of his time in Burma when he encountered a man who wreaked havoc in the jungles with no discernible motivation: “Some men just like to see the world burn.”
If evil is an illusion, what do we call people who do not employ murder as an objective to a greater (= political) end but who relish murder as an end in itself? If this isn’t evil, what is it? And if there is no such thing as evil, what do we call this?
Aesthetic Terrorism in the Christian Worldview
Aesthetic terrorism is readily explainable in terms of the Christian worldview, however. People are sinners. They’re not sinners because they sin; they sin because they are sinners. This is the Christian idea of Original Sin, which, as G. K. Chesterton once noted, is the only Christian dogma that can be empirically verified. From the vantage of the Christian worldview, it’s not evil that needs to be explained, but good. In a post-Fall world, evil is the default. Good is the exception. Good happens because God intervenes in history to restrain people from being as evil as they otherwise would be. We call this God’s common grace. More importantly, he intervened in history in the person of Jesus Christ to rescue sinners from eternal judgment. We call this special grace. Apart from God’s grace, the world would be festered with aesthetic terrorists.
The Christian Crusade
Which leads to a final comment: the Christian worldview does not offer any schemes of naturalistic redemption. Sinners are converted by God the Father’s love exhibited in the incursion of God’s Spirit in history on the basis of Jesus Christ’s redemptive work. The Bible promises that one day God will rectify all the evil in the world, but that day is not today. Before the eschaton, God has authorized a few less overtly sinful individuals (in the form of civil government) to suppress more overtly sinful individuals (like ISIS) who are destroying his image, in other words, humanity. And if they can’t suppress them, they must kill them. Thirty-five years ago, Harold O. J. Brown argued for the Christian crusade, warfare in extreme and limited cases by which the nations of old Christendom, despite their own drift from Christian truth, nonetheless retaining aspects of Christian morality, unleash their lethal justice against just the kinds of perversity that ISIS is today perpetrating in the Middle East. When the doggedly non-interventionist Rand Paul argues for military intervention to suppress ISIS as he did last weekend (which is not the same thing as Woodrow Wilson’s messianic “making the world safe for democracy”), it is hard to imagine any reasonable moral barrier to at least serious consideration of wiping this depraved plague off the planet.
Meanwhile, let us consider that in arguably the most horrifying military expansionism since Nazi Germany during World War II and the Soviet Union just after it, the ethical resources of the great guiding light of modern secularism have left us in darkness.