I have two friends who are social workers and who work with child murderers – not people who murder children, but children who have committed murder, and who are as a consequence detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. These two friends once told me that most murderers are not a danger to the general public, and for the following reason: murder is an extraordinary act, and people only commit it in extraordinary circumstances, when they are pushed by those circumstances to break the very strong bonds that generally keep them back from violence.
A concatenation of circumstances may lead to the situation where the bonds of civility are broken and murder takes place, but it is unlikely that this rare coming together of circumstances will ever occur again. And so, most people who commit murder do it as a “one off”.
I am not sure how one should judge this theory, but I pass it on as interesting. It explains one thing: why most of us never commit murder. We are too ordinary to do so. In exceptional circumstances we might. But those exceptional circumstances, luckily, hardly ever arise.
An interesting study of the way mass murder becomes possible is offered by David Jonah Goldhagen, whose doctoral thesis became an international bestseller entitled Hitler’s Willing Executioners. In it he offers an explanation of how perfectly ordinary people turned to genocide, thanks to a long process of Nazi indoctrination, which started with the dehumanisation of the Jews. Goldhagen’s book is rather frightening, as it suggests that the people who carried out the Holocaust were not monsters, at least not to start with, but ordinary people like you and me.
Now we have the revelation that Jihadi John, the masked mass murderer, is someone called Mohamed Emwazi. What is interesting about this revelation is that Emwazi is no one special, indeed someone quite ordinary. He is not the sort of person you would imagine a mass murderer and religious maniac to be. So how did Emwazi “become” Jihadi John? What brought about his hideous transformation? That is going to be a difficult question to answer, and there will be many trying to answer it in the next few days.
I remain struck by the way no extraordinary personal circumstances were at work. Emwazi was not poor, he was not oppressed, he was not brutalised; he enjoyed the same freedoms and privileges as the rest of us in this country. And yet he has turned into a murderer, and a leading member of a murderous gang of outlaws. If he can be “turned” in this way, it must be possible to “turn” many others too. That is a worrying thought. It also presents a question: did someone turn him, or did he turn himself?
We have been here before, to some extent. One of the 7/7 bombers was a teaching assistant in a primary school; another of their number, we were told, loved cricket. So, what attracted them to mass murder?
I think the answer must be along the lines of what Goldhagen (if memory serves) suggests in his book. People’s minds can be warped, and the abnormal seem normal, through relentless propaganda. Goldhagen alerts his readers to the Nazi slogan (that I had not seen before), “Die Juden sind unser Ungluck”. This translates literally as “The Jews are our misfortune”. It was repeated endlessly, and carried the sense that the Jews were the cause of all misfortunes, and the supposition that once the Jews were gone, so would all our misfortunes vanish. Of course it is not true, but repeat a lie often enough and people will believe it. The lie “creates” its own truth. And so with the lies that Jihadi Emwazi was fed: it was these lies that induced him to become the monster he now is.
We need to combat the lies. And we need to do so urgently. Once again we are left with the inescapable conclusion: we can bomb Emwazi, but we cannot bomb lies out of existence. We need to wage a war of ideas.
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