Are Your Enemies Innately Evil?

We see far too di­rect a cor­re­spon­dence be­tween oth­ers’ ac­tions and their in­her­ent dis­po­si­tions. We see un­usual dis­po­si­tions that ex­actly match the un­usual be­hav­ior, rather than ask­ing af­ter real situ­a­tions or imag­ined situ­a­tions that could ex­plain the be­hav­ior. We hy­poth­e­size mu­tants.

When some­one ac­tu­ally offends us—com­mits an ac­tion of which we (rightly or wrongly) dis­ap­prove—then, I ob­serve, the cor­re­spon­dence bias re­dou­bles. There seems to be a very strong ten­dency to blame evil deeds on the Enemy’s mu­tant, evil dis­po­si­tion. Not as a moral point, but as a strict ques­tion of prior prob­a­bil­ity, we should ask what the Enemy might be­lieve about their situ­a­tion that would re­duce the seem­ing bizarrity of their be­hav­ior. This would al­low us to hy­poth­e­size a less ex­cep­tional dis­po­si­tion, and thereby shoulder a lesser bur­den of im­prob­a­bil­ity.

On Septem­ber 11th, 2001, nine­teen Mus­lim males hi­jacked four jet air­lin­ers in a de­liber­ately suici­dal effort to hurt the United States of Amer­ica. Now why do you sup­pose they might have done that? Be­cause they saw the USA as a bea­con of free­dom to the world, but were born with a mu­tant dis­po­si­tion that made them hate free­dom?

Real­is­ti­cally, most peo­ple don’t con­struct their life sto­ries with them­selves as the villains. Every­one is the hero of their own story. The Enemy’s story, as seen by the Enemy, is not go­ing to make the Enemy look bad. If you try to con­strue mo­ti­va­tions that would make the Enemy look bad, you’ll end up flat wrong about what ac­tu­ally goes on in the Enemy’s mind.

But poli­tics is the mind-kil­ler. De­bate is war; ar­gu­ments are sol­diers. If the Enemy did have an evil dis­po­si­tion, that would be an ar­gu­ment in fa­vor of your side. And any ar­gu­ment that fa­vors your side must be sup­ported, no mat­ter how silly—oth­er­wise you’re let­ting up the pres­sure some­where on the bat­tlefront. Every­one strives to out­shine their neigh­bor in pa­tri­otic de­nun­ci­a­tion, and no one dares to con­tra­dict. Soon the Enemy has horns, bat wings, flam­ing breath, and fangs that drip cor­ro­sive venom. If you deny any as­pect of this on merely fac­tual grounds, you are ar­gu­ing the Enemy’s side; you are a traitor. Very few peo­ple will un­der­stand that you aren’t defend­ing the Enemy, just defend­ing the truth.

If it took a mu­tant to do mon­strous things, the his­tory of the hu­man species would look very differ­ent. Mu­tants would be rare.

Or maybe the fear is that un­der­stand­ing will lead to for­give­ness. It’s eas­ier to shoot down evil mu­tants. It is a more in­spiring bat­tle cry to scream, “Die, vi­cious scum!” in­stead of “Die, peo­ple who could have been just like me but grew up in a differ­ent en­vi­ron­ment!” You might feel guilty kil­ling peo­ple who weren’t pure dark­ness.

This looks to me like the deep-seated yearn­ing for a one-sided policy de­bate in which the best policy has no draw­backs. If an army is cross­ing the bor­der or a lu­natic is com­ing at you with a knife, the policy al­ter­na­tives are (a) defend your­self or (b) lie down and die. If you defend your­self, you may have to kill. If you kill some­one who could, in an­other world, have been your friend, that is a tragedy. And it is a tragedy. The other op­tion, ly­ing down and dy­ing, is also a tragedy. Why must there be a non-tragic op­tion? Who says that the best policy available must have no down­side? If some­one has to die, it may as well be the ini­tia­tor of force, to dis­cour­age fu­ture vi­o­lence and thereby min­i­mize the to­tal sum of death.

If the Enemy has an av­er­age dis­po­si­tion, and is act­ing from be­liefs about their situ­a­tion that would make vi­o­lence a typ­i­cally hu­man re­sponse, then that doesn’t mean their be­liefs are fac­tu­ally ac­cu­rate. It doesn’t mean they’re jus­tified. It means you’ll have to shoot down some­one who is the hero of their own story, and in their novel the pro­tag­o­nist will die on page 80. That is a tragedy, but it is bet­ter than the al­ter­na­tive tragedy. It is the choice that ev­ery po­lice officer makes, ev­ery day, to keep our neat lit­tle wor­lds from dis­solv­ing into chaos.

When you ac­cu­rately es­ti­mate the Enemy’s psy­chol­ogy—when you know what is re­ally in the Enemy’s mind—that knowl­edge won’t feel like land­ing a deli­cious punch on the op­pos­ing side. It won’t give you a warm feel­ing of righ­teous in­dig­na­tion. It won’t make you feel good about your­self. If your es­ti­mate makes you feel un­bear­ably sad, you may be see­ing the world as it re­ally is. More rarely, an ac­cu­rate es­ti­mate may send shiv­ers of se­ri­ous hor­ror down your spine, as when deal­ing with true psy­chopaths, or neu­rolog­i­cally in­tact peo­ple with be­liefs that have ut­terly de­stroyed their san­ity (Scien­tol­o­gists or Je­sus Cam­pers).

So let’s come right out and say it—the 9/​11 hi­jack­ers weren’t evil mu­tants. They did not hate free­dom. They, too, were the heroes of their own sto­ries, and they died for what they be­lieved was right—truth, jus­tice, and the Is­lamic way. If the hi­jack­ers saw them­selves that way, it doesn’t mean their be­liefs were true. If the hi­jack­ers saw them­selves that way, it doesn’t mean that we have to agree that what they did was jus­tified. If the hi­jack­ers saw them­selves that way, it doesn’t mean that the pas­sen­gers of United Flight 93 should have stood aside and let it hap­pen. It does mean that in an­other world, if they had been raised in a differ­ent en­vi­ron­ment, those hi­jack­ers might have been po­lice officers. And that is in­deed a tragedy. Wel­come to Earth.