The Purest of Evils

By Cyberquill 10/05/201717 Comments

Johnny Cash once recounted that when writing Folsom Prison Blues, he’d asked himself what would be the worst possible reason to kill someone.

The man in black came up with the memorable line Well, I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

Indeed, bad as terrorism is, there are still worse reasons for killing people.

Although the search for motives in the Las Vegas massacre is still ongoing, from the preliminary looks of it, to call this particular mass murderer a “terrorist” would be an insult to terrorists.

Herculean a task as it certainly seems to find something “positive” to say about terrorism, at least its perpetrators fight—and kill—for causes bigger than just themselves, generally speaking.

Those causes may be utterly absurd, like propitiating some deity; or arguably rational, such as drawing attention to, and attempting to redress, in the most horrendous of ways, a real or perceived earthly injustice of one kind or another.

Sure, it is often personal issues and grievances that prompt individuals to attach themselves to such a cause. But in the end, if only in their own warped minds, they’re trying to serve some greater good by way of the carnage they wreak.

Unlike the Las Vegas shooter, whom President Trump referred to as “pure evil.”

Critics argue that the president didn’t go far enough; that he stopped short of calling him a terrorist solely on account of the fact that he was a white male American, but would have tripped over the tip of his overlong scotch-taped tie dashing toward the microphone to brand a terrorist any person of Middle-Eastern heritage suspected of lobbing spitballs at passers-by regardless of motive.

Perhaps so.

On close inspection, though, being referred to as “pure evil” is hardly more flattering than being called a terrorist. On the contrary. “Pure evil” isn’t short of anything. It is the most exalted of damning characterizations available, for what could possible be worse than—or even as bad as—pure evil, i.e., evil devoid of even the faintest potentially mitigating component?

The Madalay Bay sniper sprayed a barrage of bullets into a crowd for no apparent reason other than his getting some sick kick out of firing into a crowd.

To call the man a terrorist would a defense he does not deserve.

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  • Richard

    The killing of unsuspecting, defenceless, innocents -- motiveless or not -- does not lend itself to the distinctions you propose. Nor does the mode of killing in any way mitigate the heinousness of the act.

    The word evil is superfluous.

    The state of mind of the perpetrator may be relevant.

    • Richard

      Terrorism is a technical term for legal or political use, depending on context.

      • Cyberquill

        I’ve read somewhere that the Las Vegas shooting constitutes an act of terrorism according to Nevada law but not according to U.S. federal law. It’s complicated.

        Official and technical definitions aside, one often encounters the complaint that white Westeners are generally more reluctant to apply the terrorist label to fellow white Westeners than to non-white non-Westeners, preferring to categorize white mass murderers as evil demented nutjobs instead, as if this were a somewhat more complimentary diagnosis than “terrorist.”

        I’m saying it isn’t.

    • Cyberquill

      Perhaps all bad reasons to kill are equally bad, in which case there is no such thing as a “worst reason” to kill someone.

      However, if you were to put a gun to my head, pardon the pun, and command me to propose some distinctions, the ones I did propose above are the ones I would propose.

      • Richard

        Given your distinctions, your corollary does illuminate. Given my non-acceptance of your starting point -- namely, motivation -- your conclusions are invalid.

        The exercise is valuable, nevertheless, to clarify the meaning of terrorism, rather than the degree of its wrong. Terrorism is not sufficiently understood to provide an encompassing definition. Hence the official confusion. What do you suggest are the essential elements? Can one individual terrorise another regardless of motive?

      • Cyberquill

        Not everyone who terrorizes is a terrorist. If that were so, Jack the Ripper would have been a terrorist. It doesn’t quite sound right to call him that, although whatever he was surely wasn’t any “better” than if he had been a terrorist.

        I would define terrorism as politically or religiously motivated violence aimed at causing a government to modify a policy, or at effecting societal change of some sort, in hopes of bringing about improvement and making the world a better place from the terrorist’s perspective.

        Which cannot be said of people that commit atrocities for purely personal reasons or for the sole sake of committing atrocities.

        • Richard

          Alright, yes, not everyone who terrorises is a terrorist.

          Your definition comes quite close.

          Is violent revolution always terrorism? Were the American revolutionaries terrorists? Can there be justified terrorism. Is the mode of the violence anything to do with it?

        • Cyberquill

          Obviously, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Had the term existed at the time, your King George III most certainly would have regarded as terrorists the entire Colonialist gang of insurgents.

          Is there an objective distinction between an act of terrorism and an act of war? Hard to say. The 9/11 attacks have been described as both.

          What’s the difference between terrorism and war crimes? Was Hitler a terrorist? Did the Allies commit terrorism when they carpet-bombed German cities in a manner that, at times, seemed like unnecessary overkill on the road to already certain victory?

          I don’t think the mode of the violence has anything to do with it, but can there be such a thing as non-violent terrorism?

          “Justified terrorism” sounds quite oxymoronic, although it strikes me as somewhat related to the question of when, if ever, it is justifiable to sacrifice few to save many.

  • Richard

    These appear to me to be the elements of terrorism.

    It is --
    1. hostile not defensive;
    2. to a greater or lesser extent planned;
    3. directed indiscriminately against civilians or individual non-hostile military personnel;
    4. a collective pursuit of illegitimate political power;
    5. executed by individuals or small groups;
    6. without declaration of war or surrender, armistice or truce;
    7. without established lines of command;
    8. carried on by legitimate powers only by proxy;
    9. distinguishable from guerrilla warfare in that it owes no allegiance to a military command.

    Do you agree with these elements? Can you think of any terrorist activity that lies outside them? On the known facts the Las Vegas killings were mass murder but not terrorism. The military campaigns of the American War of Independence were rebellious: not terrorism.

    What you say about the bombing of Germany in WW2 is highly controversial in many respects, but discussion can be reserved for another occasion. Let us say for now that it does not satisfy the above elements.

    • Cyberquill

      The descendants of the perpetrators and the descendants of the recipients of those Allied aerial bombardments may have a natural tendency to come down on different sides of the controversy regarding the justification for their extent in the waning months of World War Two in Europe.

      Are you saying that all nine elements you listed must be present for an act to meet the definition of terrorism? Or just a few of them, like maybe “at least four out of nine”?

      As to the individual elements, I get stuck at #1 already. Can hostility not be defensive? Most terrorists, I suppose, act in self-defense from their perspective. Palestinians launch hostile attacks to defend themselves against what they perceive to be a state of occupation by Israel — so what are those attacks? Hostile or defensive? Or both?

      • Richard

        I won’t be drawn here, Peter, on blame during and prior to WW2, nor on the history of atrocity, nor the justification for bombing raids either near the outbreak of war or near the end, nor on the responsibility and motives for starting the war in the first place, nor on questionable justification for any of these.

        I intended all elements to apply together, but your criticism is welcome.

        Yes, hostility can be defensive. Add “gratuitously” to modify “hostile”. Thank you.

        How do my elements now measure up? Can they be used to inform a definition of terrorism? We can then re-examine your post in that light (if you are so minded).

      • Cyberquill

        If ISIS is a terror organization, the nazis must have been as well. Both have/had established lines of command. The nazis may not have been a “small group,” but it seems awkward to suggest that group size alters the nature of a given behavior.

        The Las Vegas shooter appears to meet all of your nine elements except #4, the only one that addresses motive: he does not appear to have acted in pursuit of political power, nor “collectively” for that matter.

        Will you be drawn into whether the American War of Independence meets your definition of “a collective pursuit of illegitimate political power”?

        • Richard

          The American War of Independence does meet Proposed Characteristic (PC) 4.

          An added proposed characteristic, or rather a refinement of PC 3, is that revolution is directed against the forces of the state in combat rather than against private citizens. From this it emerges that an activity can be a mixture of terrorism and revolution. Terrorism may also (contrast PC 8) be committed directly by the state where it is in pursuit of illegitimate political power over private citizens (or residents), whether its own or those of another state. Hence the Nazis were terrorists.

          I do not know whether we need subsidiary definitions now or whether we can rely on ordinary language. There comes a point where reliance has to be placed on judicial interpretation rather than clog things up. Individual cases and how they affect the general concept can never be fully anticipated: this is the realisation inherent in the Common Law and its principle of precedent; it is also a justification of the adversarial system since trial is only a formalised debate between parties of opposing views with the addition of a determining referee.

        • Cyberquill

          Relying on ordinary language, the question is whether everyone who commits terrifying acts is a terrorist.

          Since every common serial killer “terrorizes” the neighborhoods and target groups he picks his victims from, Jack the Ripper could be called a terrorist — for how can you terrorize without being a terrorist?

          If one could separate verbs from their corresponding nouns, not everybody who rapes would be a rapist, and that makes no sense.

          Although, on the other hand, not everyone who sings (as in the shower) is a singer … or is he?

          • Richard

            Only those words that are not defined bear their ordinary meaning. This exercise is to achieve a definition of terrorism for political or legal purposes. Doubtless President Trump did the same before using the word we seek to define???

        • Cyberquill

          President Trump referred to the shooter as “pure evil.”

          Not just evil, but pure evil.

          Can politically or religiously motivated terrorism be pure evil?

          A terrorist’s sincere desire to bring about improvement of some sort, even by committing evil deeds, appears to me to corrupt the purity of his evil.

          • Richard

            I see what you mean -- it’s an oxymoron. Clever old Trump!

            If you accept the trumpism, your example might instead be evil purity.

            Clearly neither instance is a curate’s egg.

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