Evil loves to wear a mask. Both Jason Voorhees, fictional character of the endless Friday the 13th movie series infamy and the (unfortunately real) head-hacking members of ISIL both generally cover up when doing their dirty deeds. Both hearken back to the ‘headsmen’ of old, who chopped off heads for the State wearing long black hoods.
There are two related reasons for this masking of evil: Shame and fear. Since conscience never completely dies away, regardless of how one tries to repress it, we may presume that they at some level still ‘feel bad’ about what they are doing. Shame itself is derived from this ‘fear of being found out’, so anonymity is key. Just look at the shaded windows of triple-X pornography shops. People, I guess, generally enter by the back door, and don’t want to be seen browsing in such an establishment.
But the masking of evil also allows one to instill fear into one’s victim. Fear responds to an unknown future evil, one that is not yet ‘upon ‘ you, but you know is lurking around the corner, waiting patiently . Our imagination tends to magnify this evil, which is why we are afraid, or at least more afraid, when it is dark.
This principle was used to good effect, inadvertently, in the 70’s thriller Jaws, about a Great White shark that terrorizes a Cape Cod beach. Spielberg, the director, originally intended for the shark to have a greater role, but the mechanical model would not work properly, and was not all that realistic. So, it was decided to keep the shark out of sight for most of the movie, signifying his presence by the ominous basso-symphonic chords we now associate with impending doom.
Things enter a sort of denoument when the shark is ‘revealed’ at the end and chomps down on a screaming Robert Shaw, who ironically lived his entire life in fear and hatred of sharks. But the ‘Great White’, when he appears, seems a bit of a let down. A big, rubber, awkward monster. One is almost tempted to laugh (a healthy reaction to most horror movies, but in the hands Spielberg, Jaws is a step above such). It is a testament to Shaw’s acting ability that he made us terrified as he slid down the deck to the gaping, yes, ‘jaws’ (well, I saw the film as a young child, so would likely have been terrified if the shark had been made of felt and paper mache).
That is why it is requisite for us to unmask evil as much as we can, to make it present its true face. Only then can we fight it on equal terms, and see it as it really is. More often than not, the evil is more pathetic than we imagined. Recall Darth Vader when finally unmasked in Return of the Jedi; he ends up being a misunderstood giant with a scarred face, suffering from Daddy issues.
There is a philosophical principle that explains the limited nature of evil: Evil does not really ‘exist’, but is rather the privation of a good, the lack of something that should be there. Evil is an emptiness, like a cavity is the absence of a tooth; it may cause great pain, but only because there should be a tooth to cover up and protect the underlying nerve. Behind the mask of evil there is blankness and despair.
That is also why it is a grace that certain evils are currently being unmasked of late in the world: Here I will focus on the ‘unmasking’ of Islam in the barbarism of ISIL. Do they in fact show the true face of this controversial religion? Is Islam inherently violent, coercive, puritanical and repressive? Its origins in the seventh century seem to evince as much, and there is no ‘Pope’ or ‘Magisterium’ of Islam to determine infallibly and with authority what Islam should be; hence its inherent fissiparousness and factionalism (there are almost as many ‘Islams’ as there are Muslims). The members of the Islamic State (as well as the Nigerian Boko Haram) seem to believe they are acting in accordance with the Qu’ran, and that even their fellow Muslims are not Muslim enough for them. One can only hope that they soon begin quarrelling with each other about what Islam really entails, for a house divided against itself cannot stand.
But the fact remains that the face of Islam they do present is not one that any right-thinking person would want to live under. No alcohol? No dancing? No music? No games and cards? Women dressed head-to-toe in shapeless burlap, undressing just long enough to serve the sexual desires of their, ahem, ‘husbands’? What joy do they offer? Just stern, inflexible ‘worship of Allah’ seven times a day according to the dictates of these angry young men? No wonder they all wear masks.
Yet they do, partly perhaps out of shame, but also to instill fear in their intended victims. I have seen a few photos of them unmasked, and some of their members have been identified: A Welsh medical student here, a British engineering student over there; disaffected youth, seeking a purpose and solid foundation for their life, perhaps also out for the camarderie and the sense of belonging to a group.
But many of them, we may presume, flocking from Westerna nations, are not trained soldiers, and, as others have suggested, any disciplined,well-equipped army could defeat them. What they do have going for them is their religious zeal, which gives rise to their willingness to kill and to be killed seemingly without remorse.
In the end, however, they are pathetic, which literally means to arouse pathos or strong feeling: Righteous anger, yes, but also sadness at their sorry plight. What a waste of what might have been a promising life, to be thrown away in the desert in the misguided zeal of a misguided interpretation of the worship of ‘Allah’. As Christ predicted, ‘they will put you to death, thinking they are doing a service for God’.
Of course, they must be stopped, with great force if necessary, but the most effective way to fight evil is to provide a contrary good, to fill up its emptiness with something valuable. Beauty, truth and goodness will always triumph in the end. Unfortunately, a large part of the attraction to radical Islam, as others have commented, is the current vacuity of Western culture: Casual sex, rampant abortion, using people as commodities, unemployment, dissolution, despair and the breakdown of the family are gnawing at our once-great civilization, and eroding its very foundations. Youth unemployment in Spain is hovering around 50%, and many other countries are not far behind. Population is in a demographic death spiral. The young men (and it is almost always young men) see the futility of such a life, and run for what they perceive to be ‘the truth’. They want something they are willing to live (and die) for, as do we all.
Yet the truth is not to be found where they are going, and the sooner the masks are ripped off and they realize its emptiness, the better. But we all must look into our own emptiness, for without the true good in all of its fullness being given to our future generations, and without offering them hope, they will continue to seek the false good behind masks and images.
November 25, 2014