J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was sometimes faulted by literary critics for caricaturing the evil orcs as uniformly bad. All of them were as unpleasant to look as they were deadly to encounter. There is not a single good orc or even a reformed orc in the trilogy. The apparent one-dimensional assumption of men, hobbits, dwarves, and elves is that the only good orc is a dead orc. So the absolutist Tolkien tried to teach us about the enduring nature of absolute good and evil. Apparently he did not think that anything from his contemporary experience might allow him to imagine reforming or rehabilitating such fictive folk.
Tolkien’s literary purpose with orcs was not to explore the many shades of evil or the struggle within oneself to avoid the dark side; he did that well enough in dozens of once good but weak characters who went bad such as the turncoat Saruman the wizard, his sidekick Wormtongue, a few of the hobbits who had ruined the Shire, and, best of all, the multifaceted Gollum. Orcs, on the other hand, are unredeemable. Orcs, goblins, and trolls exist as the tools of the even more sinister in proud towers to destroy civilization, and know nothing other than killing and destruction. Their reward is to feed on the crumbs of what they have ruined.
In the 21st century we are often lectured that such simplistic, one-dimensional evil is long gone. A ubiquitous civilization has so permeated the globe that even the worst sorts must absorb some mitigating popular culture from the Internet, Twitter, and Facebook, as if the sheer speed of transmitting thoughts ensures their moral improvement.
Even where democracy is absent, the “world community” and a “global consciousness” are such that billions supposedly won’t let Attila, Tamerlane, and Genghis Khan reappear in our postmodern lives. To deal with a Major Hasan, Americans cannot cite his environment as the cause, at least not poverty, racism, religious bigotry, nativism, xenophobia, or any of the more popular –isms and-ologies in our politically correct tool box that we customarily use to excuse and contextualize evil behavior. So exasperated, we shrug and call his murdering “workplace violence” — an apparent understandable psychological condition attributable to the boredom and monotony of the bleak, postmodern office.
But then suddenly along comes the limb-lopping, child-snatching, and mutilating Nigerian-based Boko Haram. What conceivable Dark Age atrocity have they omitted? Not suicide bombing, mass murder, or random torture. They are absolutely unapologetic for their barbarity. They are ready to convert or kill preteens as their mood determines for the crime of being Christian. In response, the Nigerian government is powerless, while the United States is reduced to our first lady holding up Twitter hashtags, begging for the release of the latest batch of girls.
Is the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab worse? It likes the idea that it is premodern. In addition to the usual radical Islamic horrors of beheadings, rape, and mutilation, Al-Shabaab even kills protected elephants, perhaps thousands of them, to saw off tusks and fund their killing spree. They seem to make the medieval Taliban look tame in comparison.
Now we are glued on ISIS, the Mesopotamian killers who are beheading on video streams American journalists, as they murder, rape, and mutilate their way from Syria to central Iraq. One of the beheaders, Jihadi John, has a British accent, and seems to enjoy shocking Westerners with the fact that he is more familiarly savage than his fellow Arabic-speaking masochists. Apparently his family immigrated from the Muslim world to the affluence and freedom of the United Kingdom for a more civilized life so that their pampered son could one day leave it to seek to destroy all that had enabled him — and thereby find “meaning.”
If a British politician demanded to strip Jihadi John and those like him of their passports or an American senator demanded that we not let in any more Tsarnaev-like jihadists, the outcry would be such that the crimes of beheading and blowing up people at a marathon might pale in comparison. Cutting off somebody’s head or blowing off a leg is one thing, but casting aspersions on the Other is quite another.
All of the above might once have been lumped under al-Qaeda affiliates, but now Osama’s remnants apparently find monsters like ISIS too “brutal.” In contrast, Hamas only drives Christians out of Gaza rather than beheads them. It also executes unarmed Palestinians deemed insufficiently loyal. It maims those of rival Palestinian political groups. And it positions girls and boys as shields in places where their well-off elite commanders may well be targeted, rather than kidnap and take them out into the bush.
Although most of the savage violence that is plaguing the world today is the dividend of radical Islamists in Africa, Northern Africa, the Middle East, and, yes, Europe, state players are not immune. Bashar Assad has used the government apparatus of Syria to kill tens of thousands — some, in the manner of his old neighbor Saddam Hussein, through the agency of poison gas. He, too, is immune from an accounting — unless the even more evil ISIS catches up with him.
Europe and the United States are baffled by Vladimir Putin. He was supposed to be “reset” a long time ago. Or he should have at least reread Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion years ago, and learned that in an interconnected financial world, starting a war (like World War I) would be so suicidal a business as to prevent its occurrence. Instead, Putin is following the path of Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, gobbling up borderlands, but for the idea of the greater glory of Mother Russia rather than the Soviet commune. His modus operandi is as predictable as our Western weepy responses. He eyes some new territory. He cites long historical affinities. He points to oppressed Russian speakers. He sends in paramilitaries. And then he talks of annexing only part of some previous Russian land. Obama compares him to a cutup in the back of the classroom or dismisses his actions as macho “shtick.” Putin counters with talk about his nuclear arsenal or taking Kiev. If a journalist smarts off, Putin warns him of castration. If Putin wishes to let off a nuke, he might well do it — if only for the hell of it.
We can stop the roll call of global orcs here, with the assumption that we all know the nature of the lunatic North Korea nuclear regime, what the Iranians are planning for the children of the Holocaust, or who the sinister sort who run Pakistani military intelligence and fund terrorists in Afghanistan are. As state powers, they all have ways of incinerating tens of thousands rather than beheading hundreds.
Evil is ancient, unchanging, and with us always. The more postmodern the West becomes — affluent, leisured, nursed on moral equivalence, utopian pacifism, and multicultural relativism — the more premodern the evil among us seems to arise in nihilistic response, whether it is from the primordial Tsarnaev brothers or Jihadi John. We have invented dozens of new ways to explain away our indifference, our enemies hundreds of new ways of reminding us of our impotence. I suppose we who enjoy the good life don’t want to lose any of it for anything — and will understandably do any amount of appeasing, explaining, and contextualizing to avoid an existential war against the beheaders and mutilators, a fact well-known to our enemies.
The Europeans are shrugging that Ukraine is lost and will soon sigh that the Baltic states are a far-off place not worth risking the coffee shops of Amsterdam to defend. Westerners lament beheadings but then privately mutter that journalists know just what they are getting into when they visit the Middle East. Murdering and abusing a U.S. ambassador on video is not such a big deal anymore and is worth only a second or so mention on Google News.
So we wait behind our suburban Maginot Lines, arguing over our quarter- and half-measure responses, refighting Iraq and Afghanistan as if they were the Somme and Verdun, assured that we can distract ourselves from the horrors abroad with psychodramas about Ferguson, the president’s golfing, his lectures on fairness, and which naked celebrity photo was hacked on the Internet.
Meanwhile the orcs are busy and growing and nearing the ramparts…