Moral Monsters: What al-Baghdadi and Hitler Do and Do Not Have in Common

The Bush-Cheney war on terror or terrorism, launched after 9/11, was absurd; the idea behind it rested on what Gilbert Ryle, an influential mid-twentieth century English philosopher, called a “category mistake.” Terror is a state of mind, and terrorism is a tactic; these are not the kinds of things that wars can be waged against.

Barack Obama had the good sense to drop the name, but he picked up the idea and has been running with it ever since. America’s allies have joined in too. None of this diminishes the absurdity one iota.

It is not hard to see why war on terror talk is still flourishing: it is a useful public relations gimmick for politicians who want to sustain a permanent war regime. For many of them, it is also a good career move.

Philosophers, political theorists, military strategists and others have been thinking and writing about terror and terrorism since before the French Revolution. Their reflections have yielded insights and merit consideration.

But the way those words are used in political circles in Western countries nowadays, and in mainstream media, has little to do with any of that.

Politicians and pundits use those words propagandistically, not analytically — to condemn politically motivated violence directed against the West or against Western interests.

The violence in question is typically small-scale and its perpetrators are usually non-state actors. However, states that the West opposes are sometimes also said to sponsor or commit terrorist acts.

In practice, this means that Muslim organizations and individuals, and some (out of favor) Muslim countries, are tarnished with the “terrorist” label, and that others are not.

It is taken for granted in Western countries that terrorism is mainly, or only, a Muslim affair, and that Westerners, not Muslims, are its main victims. These are hard claims to justify, given the evidence. But, propaganda is all.

In Western countries, war on terror talk helps mobilize support for police repression – mainly, but not only, in Muslim communities. And it generates support for military operations throughout the historically Muslim world.

It is therefore good for the military-industrial-national security state complex. This is why its leading figures cannot get enough of it, and why they do all that they can to keep it going. They are as bad as broadcast and cable news executives on the prowl for advertising revenues.

Politicians like it too because a terrorized public is easily manipulated and disinclined to stand up for its real interests.   Also, it boosts their self-esteem. Macho warmongering helps otherwise feckless men and women feel important — as if they were doing something worthwhile.

The on-going war on terror — or, rather, on the historically Muslim world — is not quite a war on Islam. There is a difference, after all, between targeting (refractory) Muslims and targeting the religion they profess.

In practice, though, the difference is overlooked. This is why it is so easy for Islamists to persuade the victims of the West’s bombers and drones that their religion is under attack.

They have a point. The kind of Islamophobia that has become rampant in recent years in Western countries, an all but inevitable byproduct of the wars they are waging against Muslim peoples, does have a religious dimension.

Modern anti-Semitism arose in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – at a time when the world was secularizing, and when a genuine political Left, offering an alternative to the pie-in-the sky fantasies of preachers and clerics, was on the rise. This was also before pseudo-scientific racialist theories had become so discredited that even racists no longer believe them.

In those circumstances, it was only natural that traditional Christian anti-Judaism and modern anti-Semitism would part ways. Contemporary Islamophobia has matured under different conditions. For good or ill, it supports no comparable distinction.

The rise of Islamophobia is only one of the many unintended consequences of war on terror talk and of the geopolitical machinations it underwrites. Another has been the exacerbation of the problem that war is supposed to address.

There is a certain irony here: terror and terrorism are not the kinds of things that wars can be waged against, but because Western leaders have been acting as if they were, the terrorists are winning.

And so it is that, as happened with Osama Bin Laden a decade and a half ago, the Islamic State (IS) has gotten into the heads of people in the West and around the world — creating a fear as great as any in living memory.

The vileness oozing out of the mouths of the miscreants seeking the Republican nomination for President is only one indication of just how out-of-control that fear has become.

It is telling that what even more thoughtful people are saying about this latest bogeyman is all over the map. Is the Islamic State psychopathic, criminal, fanatical, or just strategically shrewd? It seems that it is all of the above, and more. Politicians and pundits cannot even agree on what to call it: the IS, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh. Their uncertainties and equivocations indicate just how successful the Islamic State has been in causing panic — and disabling level headed thinking about how best to combat a problem that Western, mainly American, war making continues to conjure into being.

The Islamic State is scary, but there are no pressing geopolitical or military reasons for anyone not living in territories it controls, or in places that it stands a chance of someday controlling, to be as alarmed as so many evidently are.

This is especially true in the West, where there are many more serious threats to wellbeing. Inequality is a greater threat. So is global warming. Yet, nobody is panicking over them. Indeed, in the United States, Republicans and some Democrats are hell bent on encouraging both.

It is worth noting too that, in the United States, gun violence on almost any day takes the lives of more people than terrorists loyal to the IS took in Paris on November 13. Yet the Paris attacks are on peoples’ minds, and gun violence is not.

It speaks volumes too that, after fourteen people were killed by Muslims with assault rifles two and a half weeks later, in San Bernardino, California, that all the talk has been about banning Muslims from entering the United States, not about making it harder for Americans to obtain guns.

Quite to the contrary, San Bernardino was a godsend for gun manufacturers, gun shop owners and, of course, for the gun and ammo departments of the five thousand or so stores that Walmart operates in the United States.

What is the psychology behind this peculiar state of affairs?

It surely has something to do with culturally specific perceptions of the monstrousness of some – but not all – forms of violence.

This is not the only example in (comparatively) recent times of intuitions about the monstrousness of someone or something resonating in peoples’ imaginations in ways that seem, if not irrational, then at least inexplicably intense.

There is one case in particular that is instructive to reflect upon, for its similarities and differences from the current obsession with the Islamic State.


It is practically an axiom of the ambient culture of all civilized peoples in our time that Adolph Hitler was evil incarnate; no one else comes close.

It has been this way for more than seven decades. No propaganda purpose is served any longer by demonizing Hitler and his cohort; World War II is over. And yet, Hitler remains in a class by himself.

Could the reason be the odiousness of the ideology he promoted, Nazism? Or perhaps it is the magnitude of the harm that he caused, the number of people who died because of him and the devastation he brought about.

I don’t think so.

There is no denying that Hitler was a “bad guy.” His ideology was odious, he did cause millions of people to be killed, and he was responsible for incalculable levels of devastation.   But he was not the only one.

There are no objective measures of an ideology’s odiousness. There is therefore no uncontroversial way to say that one is worse than another. But, even if there were, it is unlikely that Hitler’s would turn out to be enough worse than all others to count as qualitatively more awful.

It was racist to its core, but this hardly makes it unique. Especially, but not only, in the “civilized” West, ideologies as racist as Hitler’s have been commonplace for centuries.

Those ideologies helped European conquerors justify the cultural and physical extermination of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australasia. In the Americas, they undergirded an economic order built on slave labor and trade in human beings, and, when that ended, on white supremacy; and they facilitated the rapacious colonial projects undertaken by the great European powers and their American and Japanese imitators.

Hitler’s Final Solution led to the death of some six million Jews, along with gypsies and many others.   But as Cold War ideologues liked to claim, more people died under Stalin and Mao than under Hitler. That claim is contestable and very likely wrong, but it is not baseless.

Perhaps the reason why everybody “knows” that Hitler is the worst of the worst is that he led Germany to an historic defeat. History is written by the victors; if they do their job well enough, intuitions fall in line.

There is some merit in this explanation. People who see Hitler in a class by himself are generally fond of contemporaneous figures like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Winston Churchill – notwithstanding the fact that the terror bombings of Tokyo and Dresden, for which they are ultimately responsible, unleashed as much killing and devastation, above and beyond the normal course of war, as anything that Hitler did.

And then, of course, there was the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – undertaken ostensibly to shorten the course of the war in the Pacific, but also, plainly, as a warning to the Soviet Union.

If there was anything qualitatively new in the death and destruction of World War II, this was it. To be sure, the leaders responsible have not escaped criticism; their judgment has been questioned.  But no one considers them moral monsters the way everyone regards Hitler.

Get-out-of-jail free cards for the victors, while Hitler goes straight to the lowest depths of hell — without passing go, and without collecting $200. Irrational? Maybe.

But, for such beings as we are, not all god-awful deeds are created equal. Even among those that are horrible beyond words, only a very few seem truly monstrous. And it is only those that leave people unable, or unwilling, to understand or forgive the offenders.


In the course of total war, awful things happen – men, women and children are slaughtered, women are raped, possessions are looted, cities are devastated, country sides are laid waste. There was a lot of that in World War II, especially on the Eastern front.

All sides were culpable; arguably, Nazi Germany was the most culpable of all. But even this would not explain Hitler’s unique place in what the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) would call the “common rational knowledge” of our time.

Perhaps, since more plausible explanations fail, we should conclude that “Jewish influence” explains why Hitler is considered more evil than all the rest. Hitler did seek to exterminate European Jewry, after all. One might therefore suppose that, for Jews, he would be Historical Enemy Number One, and that they would do all they could to make the world know it.

Anti-Semites have been saying seemingly from time immemorial that Jews control the cultural institutions that shape the ways people view the world. This contention is overwrought, to say the least, but it is not entirely imaginary; paranoid delusions seldom are.

As a general rule, it is unseemly and unwise to credit anything that bona fide anti-Semites say, but in a country in which rightwing politicians fall over themselves paying homage to the likes of Sheldon Adelson, a character straight out of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and to like-minded ethnocratic Jewish billionaires, there is no harm in pointing out that there might just be a little truth underlying their fantasies.

Adelson and the others represent the dark side of moral progress; the bright side, ironically the condition for their possibility, is many times more pertinent and reassuring.

Because genuine anti-Semitism is no longer a real problem in America today, there is no reason not to admit, straight out, that, like all peoples, we Jews do tend to focus more on our own misfortunes than on those of others; and also to observe that we are indeed well represented in the media and in academic circles.

We can even be proud of it, but we must not be foolish enough to think that our influence has had much to do with popular perceptions of Hitler. To the extent that it is relevant at all, it is a minor factor.

Of somewhat greater relevance is the fact that, for many decades now, Zionists have found it expedient to promote the idea that the Nazi assault on European Jewry was an atrocity without parallel in human history.

By calling it a “Holocaust,” a name that has taken hold, the implication is that the Final Solution was part of a sacred history, outside the bounds of ordinary human events.   Its leader would then naturally be cast into the role that he has come to occupy in the popular imagination, the role of the Devil himself.

Zionism has effectively hijacked both the Jewish religion and Jewish identity politics; and there are Christian evangelicals who are among its most ardent proponents. Also, in a turn of events that would have seemed unthinkable decades ago, Zionists have won over the hearts and minds of more than a few far Right political formations in Western countries, notwithstanding their historical ties to classical anti-Semitic theory and practice.

This is not as surprising as might appear: like classical anti-Semitism, Zionist ideology is premised on the idea that Jews cannot assimilate into European – and therefore American and Australasian – society.

Also, the rightward drift of Israeli politics in recent decades, and its unabashed Islamophobia, has made Zionists and the political heirs of the fascist and quasi-fascist political movements of the inter-war years brothers (and sisters) under the skin.

Therefore the ways that Zionists use the Holocaust, and vilify its Leader, probably do affect the intuitive understandings of people who know little and care less about Israel. Perhaps the effect is powerful enough even to counter the ways that Benjamin Netanyahu and his co-thinkers find new “Hitlers” in every “existential threat” that comes their way. That kind of talk can only cheapen the currency, but there is no surprise in that: Zionists have long been their own worst enemies.

But Zionist machinations do not explain how Hitler became the personification of absolute evil in the popular imagination, or why that perception has remained undiminished to this day. The propaganda Zionists are able to muster is just not that compelling; it never has been, and it is becoming less persuasive all the time.

Even in the United States, where the Israel lobby owns the political class and where major media never dare question the limits it imposes, public opinion is no longer as thoroughly on board as it used to be. The remarkable growth of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement attests to this development.

But if not this, what?


I would venture that what does account for the consensus view of Hitler is the fact that the Nazis did their killing industrial-style — adapting slaughterhouse technologies and rational economic practices to the business of genocide.

Because it upends illusions about the beneficence of Reason, of sweetness and light, people find this qualitatively more horrifying than the less civilized ways of killing that human beings at war have always employed.

Francisco Goya’s famous etching, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” draws precisely on this sensibility. Even as the first waves of Enlightenment unfolded, Goya understood that Reason is not only humankind’s salvation; it can also give rise to its greatest nightmares.

Hitler’s concentration camps and gas chambers embody those nightmares in ways that seem palpable to people in our time and place. America’s bombs, nuclear and conventional, and its weaponized drones do not; the horrors they represent are too abstract.

Needless to say, Hitler never wanted to be thought of as a living embodiment of evil. That came about as an unintended consequence of policies he undertook for other reasons, under conditions of total war.

It is different with the Islamic State. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the man who would be Caliph, and the people around him in the leadership of the IS do want “whoever is not with them,” as George Bush would say, to regard them as monsters.

In order to force Sunni Muslims who would not ordinarily give them the time of day to join their fold, they want to exacerbate Western Islamophobia by making themselves and Muslims generally objects of intense and unremitting enmity. They know what buttons to push.

Gas chambers are out of the question, not for moral reasons but because they would be useless in the situation they face. There are no categories of people living in their imaginary Caliphate – the parts of Iraq and Syria that they control and in scattered regions elsewhere — that they would want to exterminate en masse.

They have enemies, of course, but it is cheaper and easier to dispatch them in other, less “rational,” ways.

They know too that for horrifying people seeking sweetness and light, atavistic spectacles that conjure up thoughts of ancient barbarities are, by now, every bit as effective as nightmares of Reason. In a world careening towards environmental catastrophe and overflowing with nuclear weapons, public opinion has become numb to the horrors that progress in the arts and sciences made possible.

But irrationality is on the rise everywhere. Fundamentalist religions are thriving all over the world. And while genuine anti-Semitism is virtually defunct outside the most retrograde precincts of Donald Rumsfeld’s “new Europe,” Islamophobia is thriving even in ostensibly enlightened and tolerant quarters.

The IS knows this. They also know that Orientalism is etched deeply into the psyches of Western peoples. In the conditions that now obtain, it is child’s play for them to deploy its motifs to their advantage.

Public beheadings and mutilations are not likely to win over hearts and minds in Sunni areas in Iraq and Syria or in Libya and other parts of the world where the IS has implanted itself. But they can be useful for terrorizing local populations into submission, at least for a while. So long as the alternatives remain similarly unappealing, a while can last a long time.

On the other hand, it does not require a lot of time to get the West to defeat itself in its so-called War on Terror; its leaders are just dumb enough for that.

Osama Bin Laden proved this beyond a reasonable doubt with 9/11; even someone as dense as al-Baghdadi could hardly have failed to notice.

Ideologically and morally, the IS is not all that different from Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies. But whereas the governments and militaries in charge of those countries want friendly relations with the West, even as they bankroll Islamist terrorists, the terrorists themselves, the ones in the IS especially, want just the opposite.

One would think that this very obvious fact would register in Western public opinion. It seldom does.

This is because the Saudis and the others know how to buy love when it serves their purpose. And, when that doesn’t work, there is always naked self-interest. Because those wretched oil potentates are economically indispensable to Western industrial and financial interests, they get a guaranteed pass, no matter what they do.

On the other hand, the IS’s aims depend precisely on getting on the wrong side of the West. Its leaders want and need the clash of civilizations that Islamophobes — and neocons — yearn for.

Their strategy for getting to where they want to be involves getting people in the West to think of them as moral monsters, creatures utterly beyond the pale. It works like a charm.

And so, for the West — not just the Americans, the French are even worse — the Saudis are best friends forever, while al-Baghdadi is next in line after Hitler for being the incarnation of evil itself.

Blame it on the fact that Western countries are led by fools or, like the United States, by weaklings who cower before obstinate, dim-witted Republicans and the benighted souls that put them in office.

Al-Baghdadi and his IS cohorts are anything but brilliant strategists.   But their foes are easy prey, and the formula they have stumbled upon is as effective as can be.

It does not involve disturbing the sleep of Reason the way the Nazis did; that would be beyond their ken, in any case. What they do instead is conjure up monsters the old-fashioned way – through sheer, unadorned, bestiality.

For locking the enemies of the Muslim world into a self-defeating frenzy, this works almost as well as gas chambers would.

It can only get worse too, as Western politicians grab the bait the IS casts before them.  The only way to stop it is for the people they purport to represent to wise up; to insist that their leaders stop making the problem worse.

In a less irrational world, this would have happened a long time ago. We must do all we can to make it happen in our world — before it is too late.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).