Are the Orcs Winning?
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.