Terrorism With a Human Face

Mohammad Emwazi didn't look like the killer who became Jihadi John. Why is that so surprising?

It’s all in the face, apparently. Just check out that terrifying mug shot of Mohammad Atta, the so-called “ringleader” of the 19 hijackers who staged the 9/11 attacks. His face, wrote the novelist Martin Amis in a short story about Atta, was “gangrenous” and “almost comically malevolent.” Hateful, too:

The detestation, the detestation of everything, was being sculpted on it, from within. He was amazed that he was still allowed to walk the streets, let alone enter a building or board a plane. Another day, one more day, and they wouldn’t let him. Why didn’t everybody point, why didn’t they cringe, why didn’t they run?

In his investigative study Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, Bernard-Henri Levy described Pearl’s convicted murderer, the British-Pakistani Omar Sheikh, as “handsome,” his face showing no “vice or malice though somewhat veiled.” He looked “intelligent and rather frank ... a strong chin under a well-trimmed beard, a good man it would seem, slightly tart smile, an intellectual demeanor, very Westernized—nothing, in any case, that signals the obtuse Islamist, the fanatic.”

So it’s not, apparently, all in the face, although the implication in Levy’s portrait, as in Amis’s fictionalized account of Atta, is that it should be, and that Pearl’s killer was somehow an aberration.

The idea that human evil is inscribed into the body and face of the criminal offender has deep roots, and is in fact the animating throb behind modern scientific criminology and its founding document, Cesare Lombroso’s The Criminal Man, published in 1876. It is also an underlying assumption in much of the news coverage of the Kuwaiti-born Londoner Mohammed Emwazi, who was exposed recently as the ISIS executioner “Jihadi John.”

Lombroso was convinced he had found the root causes of crime after studying “the skull of a brigand” and finding in it “a very long series of atavistic abnormalities.” Against the prevailing theology at the time, he concluded the “criminal man” was not innately sinful, still less possessed of the devil, but genetically abnormal, a subhuman throwback to an earlier, less advanced, stage of human evolution, proof of which could be found in his beastly appearance (“crooked noses, sloping foreheads, large ears, protruding jaws, dark eyes”).

Lombroso’s work has since been discredited, “relegated to the status of a myth,” in the words of the renowned criminologist Sir Leon Radzinowicz, and is liable to occasion more mirth than serious intellectual consideration among criminologists and their first-year undergraduate students. But its spirit is alive and well in popular discourse on terrorism and in the fervent reaction to the description of Emwazi as a “beautiful young man” by Asim Qureshi, the director of the human-rights group Cage, who knew him. It is also present in the perplexity, voiced in many news reports, over how Emwazi transformed from a smiling and reserved child to the demonic black-clad masked executioner of the ISIS snuff movies. How could an “angelic”-looking schoolboy become “Jihadi John,” the monster with the sadistic swagger and malicious eyes?

People who seriously challenge the social and moral order, the sociologist Harold Garfinkel argued, threaten the unity of that order and must therefore be excluded from it. Sociologists like to call this “othering,” a process which, as Garfinkel showed, involves “ritually separating” the transgressor from the conventional order by publicly reclassifying him as inherently bad or loathsome—and above all different. He is “made strange,” Garfinkel wrote, so as to preserve the gap between “them,” the vile ones, and “us,” the virtuous ones.

Emwazi challenges the social and moral order. To put it mildly. Far more than, say, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the reportedly Iraqi-born ISIS leader challenges the social and moral order. This is because Emwazi spent most of his life in Britain, in the secular West. Despite his Kuwaiti background and heritage, he was socialized or “acculturated” here, not over there. He went to school here, played football here, went to university here, talked London-street tough here, and wore baseball caps here. He was one of us. And then something happened, he became radicalized and embraced violent jihad, he rejected the society he had grown up in, and he went to Syria and started murdering people in the name of God.

Emwazi, in other words, is a renegade, a person who defects from one group to an opposing group. He is, to use a phrase from Lewis A. Coser’s discussion of political defection, “the enemy from within,” threatening the confidence and very identity of the “in-group:” because if Emwazi can be converted to ISIS, then why not others from among us? This, together with his horrible proficiency with a serrated six-inch blade, is why Emwazi haunts the West’s collective psyche—and why he must be demonized and, to use Garfinkel’s terminology, “made strange” in the form of the cartoonish “Jihadi John.”

In the 1940s, anthropologist Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard studied how the Nuer of modern-day South Sudan reacted to the birth of a deformed child. As Mary Douglas wrote of his findings:

[W]hen a monstrous birth occurs, the defining lines between humans and animals may be threatened. If a monstrous birth can be labelled an event of a peculiar kind, the categories can be restored. So the Nuer treat monstrous births as baby hippopotamuses, accidentally born to humans and, with this labelling, the appropriate action is clear. They gently lay them in the river where they belong.

Emwazi is our monstrous child. And the outright condemnation and opposition that has greeted the acknowledgment of his human qualities speaks to how desperately we want to separate him from ourselves. This goes a long way toward explaining why so many are resistant to Qureshi’s description of Emwazi as a “gentle, kind” and “beautiful young man.” That account humanizes him and hence draws us closer to him, to this “monster.” One need not accept Cage’s blame-shifting to recognize this essential point.

“Some newspaper stories,” the late Christopher Hitchens wrote in a 2007 Slate article, “quite simply write themselves.” He was specifically referring to the journalistic tendency in news reports on serial killers to record the disbelief of the killer’s neighbors and acquaintances, who “feel duty-bound to say that this has come as a great shock, not to say a complete surprise, and that the guy next door seemed perfectly decent—if perhaps a little inclined to ‘keep to himself.’” This reportorial protocol is also closely adhered to in news stories on terrorists, where expressions of shock—he seemed like such “a nice lad who could get on with anyone”—are invariably attributed to neighbors and acquaintances of the terrorist in question. It is fast becoming the dominant script in the story of Emwazi, as evidenced in Friday’s CNN report on the video of the teenaged Emwazi in a school playground. “But for the people who knew him it is difficult to fathom that the football-loving teenager they knew as Mohammad Emwazi has emerged as the man behind the mask,” the report concluded. This kind of incomprehension casts a sharp light on deep-seated assumptions about terrorists and other comparable folk devils in our culture: that they should be immediately recognizable as two-headed monsters who live in cesspools and feed on small children. Or something resembling that.

“Yes,” wrote Elie Wiesel, “it is possible to defile life and creation and feel no remorse. ... To go on vacation, be enthralled by the beauty of a landscape, make children laugh—and still fulfil regularly, day in and day out, the duties of a killer.” How profoundly and horribly true this is.

Killers, too, can act in decent and humane ways. It is just that we rarely like to admit it—unless of course they kill in defense of the good, as we subjectively define it. Hannah Arendt famously argued in her study of Adolf Eichmann that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary evil. Arendt’s emphasis was on the “banal” face of human evil. But there is no reason why evil cannot also have a beautiful face.