The Myth of Senseless Violence

(Chapter for Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Public Policy)

People have a fascination with something called “senseless violence”. The term originated in Dutch police reports and media stories in the 90s (zinloos geweld), but has since then found its way into other languages as well. It refers to violence that is unprovoked, random, excessive, ruthless, and above all devoid of meaning.[i] Perpetrators have no discernible motive, and are not accountable to reason. Some scholars call it ‘autotelic violence’, violence that is committed for its own sake.[ii] Most people who use the phrase, believe that senseless violence is an especially troubling phenomenon, and that it is on the rise in our societies. Here are some recent headlines from Dutch newspapers that illustrate the extent of public concern: ‘Senseless violence among youth on the rise’. ‘More and more senseless violence’, ‘Senseless violence is increasing’, ‘Yet another incident of senseless violence’. In April 2006, eighty thousand people marched silently through the streets of Brussels to protest against senseless violence, after a high school student had been stabbed to death in a Brussels train station when two thugs had attempted to steal his MP3 player.

Some people blame the perceived increase in senseless violence on the rampant individualism of our society. The social fabric is unraveling, authorities are disappearing, everyone is living on their own little island. Others blame neoliberalism and its culture of ruthless competitiveness. Still others point to secularization and the loss of a moral framework that binds us together. If the universe itself is meaningless, why care about anything? Should we really be surprised to see so much blind aggression and wanton destruction? Just look at the obscene violence of Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups. Is this not the ultimate manifestation of nihilism, utterly devoid of any meaning or sense?

But this fascination with senseless violence, as I will try to show in this chapter, seriously leads us astray. Policymakers and police authorities would do well to reject the concept. It satisfies certain psychological needs and taps into certain moral intuitions, but it has little or nothing to do with reality. In the real world, violence is rarely senseless. It is not random and haphazard, but driven by rational motives and justifications, and governed by its own internal logic. If we want to prevent violent acts, we need to understand the motivations of the perpetrators, rather than portraying their behaviour as random, mysterious, devoid of reason. Senseless violence, to the extent that it exists at all, should be the least of our worries. In fact, the more meaningful the violence, the more dangerous. It is not the senseless brute striking at random that you should worry about, but the perpetrator with rational reasons for his (it’s usually a man) violent behavior.

First I will give an overview of the different ways in which violence can be meaningful from the perspective of its perpetrators. In particular, I will explain how illusions—both homely illusions in our personal relationships as well as collective ideological delusions—can inspire and rationalize violence. Then I will try to explain why violence that makes perfect sense for the perpetrator is still regarded as ‘senseless’ by many people. The root of this inability to comprehend the rational motivations of perpetrators lies in the psychology of victim narratives and the myth of Pure Evil. Finally, I will apply these insights to one of the most extreme forms of violence today, and I will try to make sense of the inability of policymakers and analysts to make sense of it: the atrocities committed by the group known as Islamic State.

Aggressive couple arguing about their problems at home.

Rational violence

There are many ways in which violence can be a rational, or even sensible, course of action. First, and most obviously, violence can be a very effective way to remove something or someone standing in your way. As governments like to argue, ‘the use of force’ is sometimes a necessary evil to maintain order and prevent more harm. In zero-sum games – e.g. competition for scarce goods – one party’s loss is the other’s gain. In such situations, the parties are ‘obstacles’ to each other, and violence can be an eminently rational strategy in pursuit of their respective goals. Less obviously, violence can also be used as a deterrent or warning to prevent more violence. It can be used to settle a score, to exact revenge, or to assert dominance. Even excessive and sadistic violence can have a strategic logic, as in organized crime rings or street gangs. It establishes your reputation as a bad hombre, a short-tempered and vicious maniac who is not to be messed with.

Contrary to what many people think, violence also often has a moral dimension. Not only do people have no moral qualms about resorting to violence, but sometimes they think it is their moral duty. In honor cultures, people are required to punish traitors, defectors and other disobedient group members (this is known as ‘altruistic punishment’). Families may even have a moral duty to kill a member of their own that has dishonored them. If they refrain from using violence, they themselves will be judged or punished by the community. ‘Violence is not the opposite of morality’, explains the moral psychologist Jan Verplaetse, ‘but rather represents a moral system in its own right.’[iii] Of course the fact that most violence is meaningful from the perspective of the perpetrator, does not mean that we should condone or justify it. It also does not mean that we should automatically take the specific rationalizations of perpetrators at face value. Sometimes people can dream up a bogus excuses for their violent acts, which cover up their true, underlying motivations. For example, racial lynching were often justified by some trumped-up charges of misdemeanor. Perpetrators did not necessarily believe those charges, but their violence can still be called ‘meaningful’ from their perspective, in the sense that they used it as a means to intimidate and subordinate a racial minority.[iv]

Here I want to focus on the different ways in which illusions—defined as beliefs that fail to correspond with reality—can bestow meaning on violence. Illusions can have dangerous side-effects, even when they seem innocuous at first. Sometimes violence is prompted by relatively mild illusions, which deviate only slightly from the truth, but sometimes it is inspired by grandiose delusions that are completely detached from the real world. Sometimes these violence-inspiring illusions refer to ourselves, and sometimes they concern the world around us.

Moral illusions

There is one type of illusion that affects virtually every perpetrator of violence, and which is the primary driving force behind aggression: the illusion of moral righteousness. This illusion belongs to the category of positive illusions, which have been studied extensively by psychologists.[v] They are relatively mild, flattering misconceptions about ourselves and our personal future, to which nearly everyone is susceptible at least some of the time. Deep down all of us see ourselves as fundamentally decent, honest, righteous, and virtuous human beings. Even perpetrators of violence are almost always convinced that they do the right thing. We believe that we had good reason to have reacted as strongly as we did, that we did not do it on purpose, that in the end we meant well, that our action was provoked the other party, and hence that the victim was also to blame.

Perpetrators see their violent acts as a logical and inevitable outcome of a situation, a sensible course of action, and they tend to minimize the suffering they caused. Victims, for their part, tend to emphasize their innocence, the pain they have suffered, or the permanent scars left by the trauma. Perpetrators quickly forget about the incident, while victims have a long memory. Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, calls it the ‘Moralization Gap’.[vi] Psychological studies show that people are able to effortlessly switch perspectives, depending on the position in which they find themselves. It gets really tricky when both parties wallow in their sense of victimhood, and each sees the other as a brutal aggressor. This can lead to an escalating cycle of violent revenge.

Illusions of moral superiority are nurtured and maintained on both sides because human interactions are ambiguous and open to different interpretations. We all live in the same reality, but we all have the tendency – to the extent that we can get away with it – to bend that reality a little in our favor. We are all advocates of our own righteous cause, like lawyers trying their best to defend the interests of their clients. And we allow our desires and wishes to flourish in the gaps of uncertainty left by the flexing timbers of an ambiguous world. But even just mild illusions of superiority can quickly get out of hand. As the situation unfolds, each party’s construal is deviating farther from the truth, and pulling in opposite directions. Within our respective frameworks, each of the steps we take is a reasonable one, an appropriate response to the ‘provocation’ or ‘carelessness’ of the other party. And so the wedge between our views of the world is driven deeper and deeper. An innocuous encounter can progressively escalate into a violent conflict, with only a modicum of initial bias on each side. Who was the first to offend whom? Did he stare at me like that to provoke me? What was the subtext of that joke exactly? Did he just brush against me on purpose? Before you know it, both of you are wallowing in your own righteousness, incensed with the obvious rudeness, aggression, and ill will of the other party. In a protracted feud or vendetta, both parties tend to forget over time how the conflict originated, or else their memory of the initial incident will become increasingly distorted. Think about generation-spanning blood feuds among criminal gangs, in which two rival clans take turns to avenge the previous round of the conflict, while no-one quite remembers how it all started.

A cycle of violence can be exacerbated by a mechanism that seems counterintuitive at first. Most people think that an outburst of violence can help to ‘vent’ our pent-up frustrations. This is the hydraulic model of the mind, popularized by Sigmund Freud, which conceives of the mind as a kind of closed circuit in which psychic energy is flowing, like steam in a hydraulic engine. According to this model, when pent-up ‘psychic energy’ (in the form of anger or frustration) causes the pressure to become too high, we need to ‘let off some steam’ to prevent the machine from exploding.[vii]

In reality the reverse is true. Studies have shown that ‘venting’ aggression makes us more aggressive, contrary to what the hydraulic model predicts. The theory of cognitive dissonance, developed by psychologist Leon Festinger, explains this phenomenon. As I mentioned earlier, people like to think of themselves as basically decent and good, not as aggressive brutes or hotheads. If they then do resort to violence, they seek some way to align their overt actions with their self-image. A typical rationalization goes as follows: ‘I’m a reasonable person. I’m definitely not the type of guy who just punches someone in the face without reason. But yeah, I did just punch this guy in the face. Well, he must’ve really deserved it, or else I wouldn’t have done this. What an asshole. He’d better not come round here again.’ An earlier outburst of violence serves as the justification of the next one. So a single act of real or perceived violence, ratcheted up by moral righteousness on both sides, can lead to an escalating cycle of aggression. One begins to wonder why there isn’t a lot more violence in the world. [viii]

Ideological illusions

In almost every form of violence, the illusion of moral righteousness is somehow involved. But this factor alone is not sufficient to explain large-scale, organized, gruesome violence. This kind of violence is often inspired by collective ideological illusions about the world, whether religious or otherwise. The higher the death toll and the more gruesome the violence, the greater the chance that ideology is involved. As philosopher Sam Harris put it: ‘Whenever you hear that people have begun killing noncombatants intentionally and indiscriminately, ask yourself what dogma stands at their backs. What do these freshly minted killers believe?’[ix]

And indeed, many of the most horrible atrocities in world history have happened because some group of people believed some bizarre things about the universe that were immune to criticism and empirical refutation. Because of their dogmatic but sincere faith, they were convinced that they were doing the right thing, or at least what the circumstances required of them. Perhaps the most dangerous category of illusions is utopian thinking, which promises the arrival, in the not too distant future, of some form of paradise or perfect society. Such utopian beliefs provide a rational justification for instrumental violence: to reach a noble goal, you have to clear away some obstacles. Sometimes these obstacles are concrete and inanimate, but sometimes they are people who refuse to believe in the coming of the promised utopia, or who actively oppose it.

Because utopian belief systems predict an end state that is infinitely valuable, it sets up a ‘pernicious utilitarian calculus’, as Steven Pinker wrote. There, beyond the horizon, the mirage of a perfect world is shimmering, an infinitely valuable reward. And does not a perfect end justify the most drastic sacrifices? ‘In a utopia, everyone is happy forever, so its moral value is infinite. … How many people would it be permissible to sacrifice to attain that infinite good? A few million can seem like a pretty good bargain.’[x]

Consider the utopian illusions of communism, according to which Karl Marx is the discoverer of a set of ineluctable laws governing the course of human history. In the dialectical schema of Marxism, capitalism was doomed to collapse under its own internal contradictions, sparking a revolution that would lead to the temporary dictatorship of the proletariat, and eventually paradise on earth: the class-free society, in which hunger and oppression and strife would be no more than a distant memory. These were the ideals envisioned by the Bolsheviks when they grabbed power in 1917 in revolutionary Russia. In their attempts to hasten the ‘birth-pangs’ of history, they felt perfectly justified in installing a regime of terror and ruthlessly suppressing all forms of dissent. Within their dogmas, their reasoning was impeccable: ‘This is just temporary. Soon we’ll be living in a paradise. Just hang on.’

Of course paradise never arrived, because reality does not tend to comply with our desires. The communist experiments of the past century have all failed because they were based on a completely unfounded view of history, and also an erroneous conception of human nature. But irrational belief systems can be tenacious. When threatened by reality, they often develop a protective screen around themselves, to ward off refutation. Imprisoned in their Marxist belief system, communist leaders like Lenin and Mao came up with a straightforward and sensible explanation for the failures of collectivization: hostile reactionary forces were at work trying to sabotage the revolution. And of course, for the sake of the coming utopia, those forces had to be eliminated. The ideological need for imaginary saboteurs and traitors was commensurate with the magnitude of these leaders’ failures.[xi] If necessary, whole populations had to be exterminated, if they didn’t behave in the way demanded by revolutionary dogma.

Aggressive couple arguing about their problems at home.

Delusions and utopian thinking also played a large role in the other major politically-motivated catastrophe of violence of the 20th century, namely the one brought about by Nazi Germany. For a variety of reasons, the leading ideologues of National Socialism had convinced themselves that the Jews were a blight on humanity, a sort of parasitical life form that needed to be expunged from the future utopia of the Third Reich. While the Nazis were drawing from a rich history of Christian demonization of the Jews, with antisemitism having been rampant throughout Europe for a very long time, the immediate cause of the pathological hatred of the Jewish people in Germany was the ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth. It is important to note that this myth, in turn, was born out of the illusion of national and racial superiority that had foundered in the trenches of the First World War. Not only had the Germans lost the war in 1918; they had subsequently been humiliated by the Allied nations at Versailles, with significant loss of territory, forced demilitarization, and crippling financial reparations. That sense of injured pride was the germ of a new, more sinister myth. If victory in the war had rightfully belonged to Germany, but they had lost anyway, then there was only one possible explanation: the Jews. If only those filthy vermin had not betrayed them and sabotaged the German war efforts, then of course Germany would have won the war. That germ of an idea found fertile soil in other existing conspiracy theories about cosmopolitan World Jewry, notably as expounded in the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This document, which is now known to be a 19th century forgery from Czarist Russia, pretends to contain the proceedings of a secret Zionist conference, in which evil plans are hatched for world domination and the destruction of European civilization.

Such conspiracy theories, blended with racial pseudoscience and a dose of social Darwinism, proved to be a highly inflammable combination. After years of indoctrination by Nazi propaganda, tapping into other historical sources of popular antisemitism, many Germans became convinced that the Jews were indeed some sort of parasitic life form that had infiltrated its way into German society, and needed to be contained or eliminated. The architects of the Final Solution, as well as many members of the SS Einsatzgruppen carrying out the systematic extermination of the Jewish race, were moral idealists, firmly convinced that they were doing the right thing. This point is developed in a brilliant (but disturbing) way in Jonathan Littell’s historical novel Les Bienveillants, which gives the reader the perspective of the Nazi perpetrator without interruption for more than 900 pages. Naturally, explains the main character, it was an unpleasant job to shove women and children into a ditch and shoot them in the head, but if the Master Race carried out its job dutifully and thoroughly, the world would be liberated from a greater evil. The mechanism of cognitive dissonance that I mentioned earlier also played a role in entrenching anti-Semitic beliefs and justifying these atrocities. Those who carried out the executions—at first often with reluctance and sometimes great distress, as Christopher Browning has documented in his classical study Ordinary Men—came to hate and despise their victims even more.[xii] Because they did not want to think of themselves as vicious killers, they were internally desperate for some way to rationalize their deeds.

Pure Evil

Many people might find this analysis of the ‘rationality’ behind the Endlösung distasteful or even immoral, as if I am somehow condoning or minimizing the Nazis’ atrocities. Indeed, many people do not want to understand the reasons and motivations of horrible criminals like the Nazis. Here we arrive at the appeal of the myth of ‘senseless violence’. If we are confronted with aggression, naturally we want to identify the guilty party. In making such intuitive moral judgments, we prefer to make a clean distinction between victims and perpetrators. We want to sympathize with the former, and condemn the latter. And it is easier to do this if you look at the perpetrator as nothing more than a senseless brute, acting without any sensible reason whatsoever. As psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson express the point: ‘The incomprehensibility of the perpetrator’s motives is a central aspect of the victim identity and the victim story.’[xiii]

Intuitively, a perpetrator of violence cannot have reasonable motives, because that would confound our moral judgments. A French proverb expresses the point: tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner. If we were to make the effort to understand violent acts from the perspective of the perpetrator, then perhaps we would find mitigating reasons or plausible justifications, or maybe even realize that it was all based on a misunderstanding. That’s why people want to maintain, to the extent that they can, that a perpetrator has no motives at all, or at least no motives that any reasonable person would understand. Portraying violence as devoid of any sense makes it easier for us to side with the victim and to increase our moral distance from the perpetrator. Of course, this applies all the more when we ourselves are the (perceived) victim of aggression. We maintain the myth of our own moral righteousness by representing the violence of the perpetrator as unprovoked, wanton, and senseless.

But does it make any sense to say that violence has no sense at all, that the perpetrator has no discernible motive? There must be something that causes them to be violent, right? If you scratch the surface of the concept of ‘senseless violence’, you’ll find another, older belief, which the psychologist Roy Baumeister named the Myth of Pure Evil. According to this myth, evil things in this world are done by inherently wicked people, who desire nothing more than to cause death and suffering.

In Western culture, evil as a force of nature is personified by the devil, also known as Satan, Beelzebub, Lucifer, or simply the Evil One. This creature, as the counterpart and mirror image of a good God, is intrinsically and uncompromisingly malevolent. All he desires is to oppose, and ultimately destroy, everything that is good. Similar figures can be found not just in Abrahamic monotheism, but in cultures all across the world. They take the form of demons, witches, evil spirits, or just some impersonal dark force. In many cultures, it is also believed that ordinary human beings can be in league with the forces of evil. In Christian mythology, for example, witches were thought to have communion with Satan himself during their ‘black Sabbath’.

Among religious traditionalists, belief in the devil and his minions is still widespread. But even in our secular culture, the myth of Pure Evil still has considerable influence, albeit in less obvious guises. In the secular version of the myth, Evil has become internalized. The devil no longer exists as a real entity, but he lives on as a metaphor for the dark side of human nature. Just like the devil, the evil inside of us cannot be explained in terms of reasonable, ulterior motives. Instead, evil is an inexplicable and fundamental mental principle. This internalized Evil, shorn of supernatural elements, can be found in early scientific theories of violence. The ethologist Konrad Lorenz, for example, theorized that the human mind has an innate aggression instinct, a biologically rooted drive to fight and destroy.[xiv] More influential still are Sigmund Freud’s speculative theories about the unconscious, a dark abode in the inner recesses of our mind teeming with forbidden desires and perversions, predominantly related to sex and aggression.

We also see traces of the myth of Pure Evil in our everyday language and popular culture: we wrestle with our ‘inner demons’, or are tempted by our ‘dark side’. Some expressions also refer to the perceived animalistic roots of evil: people engage in ‘beastly’ or ‘bestial’ violence, as in Hillary Clinton’s description of young delinquents as ‘superpredators’.[xv] In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, we read: ‘In every man, of course, a beast lies hidden–the beast of rage, the beast of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the beast of lawlessness let off the chain’[xvi]

Many popular movies and comic books are populated with one-dimensional villains, whose only raison d’être is to wreak havoc and perpetrate evil. The ultimate goals of the forces of Evil often remain vague and nondescript, like those of the devil in religious traditions (is it dominion over the world or its destruction?).[xvii] The modern incarnation of this Pure Evil, which also abounds in more sophisticated literature and films, is the psychopathic mass murderer. People’s fascination with these evil creatures is limitless. Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic psychopath from Thomas Harris’s novels, became a cultural icon as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Other celebrated psychopaths include Patrick Bateman, the wealthy and slick banker from Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, Alex from Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and The Joker from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

All these figures are heavily colored by the myth of Pure Evil. Bateman is an inveterate sadist, who derives diabolical pleasure from torturing his victims, without any discernible motive apart from relieving his boredom. Hannibal Lecter eats his victims – which may qualify as an instrumental motive – but he also likes to torture them first. How he developed this evil character is fundamentally mysterious, as he himself explains to Clarice Starling during an interrogation: ‘Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.’[xviii] Alex and his droogsrelish their daily portion of senseless ultraviolence: randomly beating up and torturing innocent people. They behave like incarnations of Freud’s Id, full of aggressive and sexual urges that need to be regularly discharged. And Christopher Nolan’s Joker likes to muse philosophically about what it is exactly that he wants: ‘Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it!’

In short, the myth of pure and inexplicable Evil exerts a strong attraction on the human imagination. The only problem is that it has almost no connection to reality. One of the most surprising characteristics of real-life villains, in complete contradiction with the myth of Pure Evil, is that they think they have good, even morally justified reasons for their violent deeds. The writer George R. R. Martin once expressed the point nicely: ‘You don’t just have people who wake up in the morning and say, “What evil things can I do today, because I’m Mr. Evil?” People do things for what they think are justified reasons’.[xix] People who commit violence for no reason, like ‘Obviously Evil’ movie villains—perhaps, for good measure, laughing diabolically at their own fiendishness—are the stuff of fiction.

Contrary to the secular myth of Pure Evil – propounded by Sigmund Freud and others – people have a natural aversion to violence against their conspecifics, which they need to overcome. It is possible to become insensitive to killing other human beings, and even to start enjoying it, but it usually requires hard practice. Many seasoned criminals have bad memories about their first kill or act of violence.[xx] Sadism – enjoying the infliction of gratuitous suffering – really exists, but it is a relatively rare phenomenon, incapable of explaining large-scale atrocities. Moreover, research suggests that it is an ‘acquired taste’, not an innate tendency.[xxi] And even when it does occur, sadism is not completely ‘senseless’, but is often an instrument to exact revenge, assert dominance, or gain sexual gratification.

The violence of the Islamic State

To illustrate how the myth of senseless violence leads policy makers astray even today, let us have a look at the atrocities perpetrated by the group known as the Islamic State. President Obama once remarked that IS stands for a form of ‘extremist nihilism’, meaning that the group has no ideology and stands for nothing. Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry was even more explicit, dismissing the group as ‘nothing more than a form of criminal anarchy, nihilism which illegitimately claims an ideological and religious foundation.’ And presidential candidate Hillary Clinton characterized IS as a ‘kind of barbarism and nihilism’, which is ‘very hard to understand’ except in terms of the ‘lust of for power … and the total disregard for human life’[xxii]

UK PM David Cameron confirms "Jihadi John" British ISIS militant Mohamed  Emwazi seen in beheading videos killed - CBS News

In fact, few atrocities are as meaningful and ‘rational’ as those committed by IS. Their madness has a method to it; their horrors are driven by an internal logic. To see this, we have to understand the ideology of IS, which can be summarized fairly easily. According to jihadism, a cosmic battle is being waged between the forces of Good and Evil. It is drawn not along economic or racial lines, but along purely religious ones. On one side of the line we find the True Believers. They profess the existence of one (and only one) supreme God, creator of heaven and earth, who has revealed himself in the form of an infallible and eternal Book, which exists since the beginning of time, and is co-existent with creation itself. On the other side we find the assorted enemies of God: the unbelievers, hypocrites, apostates, idolaters and crusaders, who are led by the Evil One himself. God has commanded the True Believers to conquer the lands of the unbelievers and build a worldwide caliphate, a perfect society in which divine Sharia law will be implemented. Conquered peoples are to be either converted, enslaved (women and children), or exterminated. In principle, the so-called People of the Book (mainly Christians and Jews) are allowed to live under the caliphate, provided they submit to the dominance of Islam, accept a position of religious apartheid, and pay special taxes (jizya).[xxiii] According to jihadi ideology, God has prearranged a final showdown between the armies of Good and Evil in a place called Dabiq (which, not coincidentally, was also the name of the professional-looking official magazine of Islamic State), starring the Messiah (Mahdi), Satan and Jesus, after which the End of Times will arrive and the material world will be destroyed.

The most important justification for violence in jihadi ideology is the concept of martyrdom. Believers who are killed on the battlefield in their jihad against the unbelievers, gain direct entrance to paradise (along with their families). For ordinary non-martyred believers, their fate in the afterlife is far less secure. They have to appear before God at the End of Days, and will be judged on the basis of how they lived their life. If they piled up too many sins, they risk eternal damnation. Martyrs, however, are allowed to skip this procedure. Indeed, according to jihadists, the first drop of your blood that is spilled on the battlefield instantly washes away all your sins (a myth that is strongly reminiscent of the papal promises made to Christian crusaders in the middle ages).[xxiv] Such a mindset can inspire – and render ‘meaningful’ – the most uncompromising and even suicidal acts of violence. The apocalyptic nature of jihadism provides an additional reason for wanton violence: why restrain yourself, or care about anything on earth, if the world will be annihilated soon anyhow?[xxv]

Many policymakers and commentators have failed to understand why the prospect of jihad is so attractive for young Muslims, especially in Western Europe. On the one hand, the fear of hellfire is part and parcel of the Islamic tradition, and has been instilled in the hearts of many young Muslims. On the other hand, young Muslims living today are constantly exposed to the temptations of modern life, such as sex, drugs, and alcohol. Many seem torn between the religious traditions of their parents, and the hedonism and liberalism of western societies. Many young people who find it hard to resist the temptations of modern life, and who are afraid of appearing before their creator, can undergo a sudden religious conversion, and become determined to better their lives and atone for their sins. For such people, who become ever more immersed into religious doctrines, the prospect of martyrdom can gradually become quite appealing. Not only is it a way to devote yourself to a higher cause, but it is the only guaranteed way to secure salvation in the afterlife. In this way, fear of hell, combined with an awareness of your sinful ways, can be the first step in a process of religious radicalization, which ends in the willingness to commit violent acts of terror in the name of God.

Disbelief about belief

Because of their extremely gruesome nature, many people tend to see the violence of IS as ‘senseless’. Of course, people like Obama and Clinton, also have their political reasons for ignoring or downplaying the ideological motivations of religion, at least when talking in public. By maintaining that IS is just a form of ‘nihilism’ or senseless barbarianism, they can avoid facing some uncomfortable truths about Islamic scripture, or indeed about their own Christian traditions. But there is an additional reason for the inability of many people to confront the motivations and reasons of IS, and to maintain the myth of senseless violence. In the wake of secularization and the steady decline of religion in our societies, many western intellectuals – including many liberal believers – have grown alienated from the traditional articles of the Abrahamic faiths, and the power of religious devotion in general. Such people find it exceedingly difficult to understand the mental universe of religious fanatics. Religion, in their eyes, cannot be more than a convenient pretext for violence, a façade disguising people’s ‘true’ motivations. This phenomenon could be called disbelief about belief.[xxvi] Not only do godless Westerners fail to believe in heaven and hell; they also find it hard to believe that anyone else would believe such nonsense. In the particular case of apocalyptic jihadism, this temptation is understandable. It is indeed hard to accept that anyone seriously believes those juvenile fantasies about a heavenly brothel with 72 dark-eyed virgins and wine that doesn’t give you hangovers? And what about that cosmic End Battle, in which Jesus (yes, the Jesus) will wield a flaming sword to lead the armies of the True Believers? This sounds like the scenario of a low-budget action movie or video game, not serious theology. And yet, some people really believe this stuff, and we ignore the reality of their sincere convictions at our peril.


People are reluctant to see violence as meaningful, especially if it is extreme and gruesome. They prefer to think that evil is something inexplicable, a fundamental primal force of nature. Perhaps they are afraid that, in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.’ But these moral intuitions lead us astray. Violence is hardly, if ever, completely senseless. Most of the time it is rationally motivated, driven by ideas and convictions. Not only are the worst atrocities of the modern era ‘meaningful’ in that sense, but without some ideological or religious underpinning they would be unthinkable. Atrocities that look random and devoid of sense from our vantage point, often make perfect sense from the perspective of the people committing them. Only reasons can explain things like industrial-scale killings in gas chambers, organized famines, ritualistic mass beheadings, and suicidal terror attacks with passenger aircraft.

If policymakers want to understand and prevent violence, they’d to well to discard the myth of senseless violence. It is important that we understand the reasons and strategic logic behind violent behaviour, especially in the case of organized and systematic violence. In the case of the rise and fall of IS, the failure of policymakers and commentators to take seriously the group’s ideology was far from inconsequential. For a long time, they have continued to treat IS as a bunch of frustrated losers or psychopaths, who would have been drawn to extreme violence anyhow, and who use the ideological motivations merely as a pretext.[xxvii] As a consequence, they have failed to spot early warning signs of radicalization, such as sudden religious conversions and displays of piety, and they have underestimated the influence of specific religious ideas, such as fear of hell and belief in martyrdom as the only sure way to salvation.[xxviii]

The good news is that, if extreme violence is not random or haphazard, but is instead driven by reasons, it can also be countered with reasons. People are not inherently violent, and we are not born with aggression drives or sadistic instincts. If we can understand the strategic logic behind violent conflict, we can prevent those types of situations from occurring. And if we understand the illusions that inspire ideological violence, we can try to undermine and deconstruct them.[xxix] But in order to do so, the first thing we have to do is get rid of the myth of senseless violence.

Acknowledgments: I wish you thank Neil Van Leeuwen for his critical comments, and Nick Brown for carefully proof-reading this chapter.


[i] There is another, weaker sense of “senseless”, which points to the futility of violent conflict, or its failure accomplish some larger goal. An example is the following claim: “The trench warfare during the First World War was a senseless waste of human life”. Even so, both parties in the conflict had their reasons to continue the violence, once it had started. Game theory describes the strategic logic of these situations as “wars of attrition”.
[ii] Willem Schinkel (2010). Aspects of Violence. A Critical Theory.
[iii] Jan Verplaetse (2008). Het morele instinct. Over de natuurlijke oorsprong van onze moraal: Uitgeverij Nieuwezijds BV, p. 72. (my translation)
[iv] Thanks to Neil Van Leeuwen for making this point about ratioanlization.
[v] Shelley E. Taylor (1989). Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind: Basic Books
[vi] Steven Pinker (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature.The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes: Viking Penguin, p. 488-495
[vii] On the remarkable similarity between psychoanalysis and medieval daemonology, see Richard Webster (1995). Why Freud Was Wrong. Sin, Science, and Psychoanalysis, Chapter 15.
[viii] Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson (2008). Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), pp. 25-28
[ix] Sam Harris (2004). The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: W.W. Norton &Compa, p. 106.
[x] Pinker, ibid.,p. 328
[xi] Alexander Solzhenitsyn described this mechanism very well in his famous testimony The Gulag Archipelago (1974).
[xii] Christopher Browning (1992/2017). Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Harper Perennial [xiii] Tavris & Aronson, ibid., p. 195.
[xiv] Konrad Lorenz (1963) Das sogenannte Böse zur Naturgeschichte der Aggression,
[xv] Clinton originally used the phrase during a 1996 speech in New Hampshire.
[xvi] Dostoyevsky, Brothers Karamazov, ii. V.4, ‘Rebellion’.
[xvii] The website offers a treasure trove of such clichés. For example, an ‘Omnicidal Maniac’ is villain who, for reasons that are invariably hard to fathom, wants to destroy the whole world or even reality itself. The trope ‘Obviously Evil’ refers to villains who glorify and revel in their own fiendishness, and ‘The Dark Side’ to the recurring cliché of a morally corrupt counterpart of the Force of Good..
[xviii] In Harris’s later novels, however, the origins of Lecter’s evil are traced down do a childhood trauma in Lithuania in 1944, when he witnessed the murder and cannibalism of his little sister.
[xix] This applies even to those human beings who approximate the myth of pure evil most closely: psychopathic serial killers. Hard though it may be to believe, serial killers often see themselves as victims, not as perpetrators. They point to an unhappy childhood, the humiliations they have suffered from others, or the injustice done to them by society. They also invariably minimize and downplay their deeds. Baumeister, ibid., pp. 47-52. [xx] Paul Crook (1994). Darwinism, War and History.
[xxi] Pinker, pp. 547-556, Baumeister, Chapter 7.
[xxii] References to Clinton, Obama and Kerry’s statements can be found in this effective rebuttal of the claim that IS represents ‘nihilism’: Marty Kaplan, ‘Jihadism Isn’t Nihilism. What Everyone Gets Wrong About ISIS’, Alternet November 22, 2015.
[xxiii] A very insightful essay on the ideology of IS: Graeme Wood, ‘What ISIS Really Wants’, The Atlantic, March 2015. A more scholarly studies on religious terrorism: Mark Juergensmeyer (2005). Terror in the Mind of God. Taylor & Francis.
[xxiv] Andrew Dickson White (1896) A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Chapter XI.
[xxv] The dogmas about heaven and hell offer a direct justification for sadism, the same one that was used by the Inquisitors and witch hunters in the Christian middle ages. If the ‘merciful’ God himself will torture the infidels for all eternity in the hereafter, why not give them a foretaste? This may explain why IS openly flaunts its atrocities. Executions of gays, apostates and ‘crusaders’ are captured with professional HD cameras, down to the last obscene detail, and subsequently distributed through the official press agency of IS. Manuals for terrorists contain instructions for adding shrapnel such as nails to bombs in order to cause a maximum of gruesome injuries to the targeted enemy.  An informative discussion of apocalyptic strands in the religious traditions of both Judaism, Christianity and Islam can be found in Gershom Gorenberg (2002). The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount: Oxford University Press.
[xxvi] Maarten Boudry & Jerry Coyne (2016). Disbelief in belief: On the cognitive status of supernatural beliefs. Philosophical Psychology, 29(4), 601-615. See also my piece for 3 Quarks Daily, ‘Disbelief in belief’, April 18, 2016
[xxvii] ‘Gauging the Jihadist Movement, Part 1: The Goals of the Jihadists’, Stratfor Dec 19, 2013. Graeme Wood, ‘What ISIS Really Wants’, The Atlantic, March 2015.
[xxviii] « Les autorités ne voulaient pas croire ce qu’il se passait à Molenbeek », Le Monde, March 25, 2016.
[xxix] See the work of Quilliam, the anti-radicalization think tank of Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim reformer and former Islamist. Maajid Nawaz (2012). Radical: My journey from Islamist extremism to a democratic awakening: Random House. For an example of a counter-narrative addressed to jihadists, using reasonable arguments, see Nawaz’s letter: ‘An Ex-Radical’s Open Letter to ISIS Fighters: Quit Now While You Can!’ Daily Beast, November 9, 14.