I had an interesting discussion with my friend Aidan Hartley earlier this week about whether the young men fighting for the so-called Islamic State are psychopaths. (This was before the news broke of Steven Sotloff’s beheading.) Aidan is better placed than most to answer this question, having worked as a war correspondent for many years and written a classic book on the subject called The Zanzibar Chest.
His view is that the Islamic radicals attracted to IS are not run-of-the-mill jihadis, but a particularly nasty sub-species. Without in any way trying to defend the activities of terrorist groups like al-Shabaab, whose handiwork he’s witnessed close up, he thinks of them as being more like the IRA. That is, their adherents are motivated by a toxic cocktail of political and religious ideology which sanctions the murder of civilians as a means to an end.
The members of IS, by contrast, aren’t ideological fanatics so much as bloodthirsty monsters. They’ve travelled from places like Sydney and Manchester purely because they want to chop people’s heads off. Their talk of wanting to reverse the Sykes-Picot Agreement and create a caliphate joining Iraq and Syria is just so much rhetoric. In reality, they’re evil predators who’ve flocked to the killing fields so they can indulge their sick fantasies.
Now, I can see why Aidan has reached this conclusion. The actions of some members of IS, such as tweeting pictures of their children holding up severed heads, is so shocking that they do seem different in kind from other jihadis, not just different in degree. It’s as if the part of the human brain that recognises such behaviour as abhorrent is missing and, for that reason, their behaviour is more disturbing than hijacking a plane and flying it into a skyscraper. It’s a step beyond terrorism into something closer to insanity — Mr Kurtz territory.
Still, I think Aidan is wrong about IS. To begin with, I don’t think there’s a significant difference between these Islamists and their counterparts in groups like al-Qa’eda or Boko Haram. They are no less murderous, no more merciful. When it comes to non-Muslims, they are all completely indiscriminate about whom they maim and kill: women, children, the disabled — it makes no difference. If you want to call the jihadis in IS ‘psychopaths’ I think you have to apply the same label to the al-Shabaab terrorists who murdered more than 50 people at the Westgate shopping centre.
But, more importantly, I think very few of the members of these radical Islamist groups actually do suffer from psychopathy — at least, not in the sense that they would be clinically diagnosed as suffering from that specific personality disorder if examined by a psychiatrist. I dare say that in their day-to-day lives back home in Maida Vale, or wherever it is they’re from, the IS fighters lead perfectly normal lives, exhibiting all the customary amounts of empathy, remorse, inhibition and so on. Indeed, I think that is what’s so profoundly frightening about them — they are no different from the young man sitting beside you on the bus or working behind the counter at the local sports shop.
I don’t mean that all Muslim young men are capable of these crimes — I mean all young men. Middle-aged men, too, and not a few women. I am a Catholic when it comes to the existence of evil — I think it’s in all of us, and never far from the surface.
All the religious and political nuts out there who convince themselves that the end justifies the means — whether Nazis, communists or jihadis — are just trying to mask their true impulse from themselves, which is their atavistic desire to slake their bloodlust. It’s always about raping and torturing and murdering — everything else is window dressing.
As Freud said, ‘Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved… they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus.’
The appalling atrocities taking place in Iraq are just the latest illustration of a truth that is as old as mankind itself. There is a wolf in all of us, struggling to get out.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.