THE BLOG
02/24/2015 05:40 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2015

The Savages

It's not the first time ISIL has released a video featuring their now trademark brutality and disregard for human life. Each one has left us more breathless in horror and disbelief than the last--and the thought that we haven't seen the final one is desperately tragic. "Savages" we whisper to ourselves when our breath begins to return. And we are right. They lined 21 young men in bright orange jumpsuits against the organic line of a blue coast with the aesthetic precision of a Christo and Jean-Claude installation and summarily beheaded each and every of them. These are savages. That word gets a lot of second-guessing these days--and often for good reason--but that doesn't mean it's never appropriate. Of course it's appropriate; at times like this, it's the only word we can physiologically voice.

There is an argument that we shouldn't call them Savages or Extremists or any of our lexicon's most heinous descriptors because it only encourages them. These savages, the logic goes, take great pride in being savages, and having their savagery called out as such is a kind of accomplishment or reward. I don't know. That may be true, but, in our hearts, we know real savagery when we see it.

There is also, of course, a wariness of the sentiment in any context among some audiences--a concern recently lodged as one of the many complaints against the movie American Sniper. The main character apparently refers to Iraqis indiscriminately with that term. I can't say for sure; I didn't see the film.

(To be clear, I believe the respect we pay our veterans and service members stems from our understanding that they volunteer to do whatever they are told by their commanders for the good of the country, so I have no interest in blaming Chris Kyle for the task he was given overseas. If you do what your country asks and do it better than anyone ever has, that is heroic. And I'm not about to judge the mindset he had to get himself into in order to do a job I would never want. I'm just not going to be bullied into giving Warner Bros. $12.50 in some bid to prove my patriotism, either.)

If Chris Kyle had to view everyone around him that he might be called on to shoot as a savage, I thank him for making that sacrifice for our country. It was a sacrifice, though. Those everyday Iraqis were not savages. Kyle used the term as a tool to distance himself from them, to otherize them, to rob them of their humanity. That's how the term has almost always been used. And, as is also always the case, using it cost him some of his.

The word means wild, of course, but wild can refer to a great many things. Like an Aristotelian vice, it can mean too near a state of nature or too far away from it.

In usage it's always meant other, so it's sadly unsurprising that, almost every time the word is used, it is used to justify real savagery on the part of the user. Such was the case with the "godless natives" as well as the kidnapped and enslaved Africans on this continent not too long ago. In fact, it's often been used interchangeably with "godless," and there might be something to that; while nearly every major religion has been used as a justification for acts of savagery it has always been the result of corrupting that religion to the point of heresy. As any theologian would confirm, the Inquisitors were not good Catholics and the KKK were not good Christians, no matter how steeped in the iconography of "divine right" their robes might have been.

The savages of ISIL are not good Muslims. They too have corrupted their religion into something ugly and barbaric, and there is no doubt that they did so, in part, by dehumanizing everyone not of their sect. One can almost imagine them spewing "savage" along with "infidel" as they slaughter farmers, journalists and aid workers like cattle, or as they trade kidnapped girls as concubines to an endless market of rapists.

Calling someone a savage is an act of savagery, and I'm completely okay with that when is comes to ISIL. It dehumanizes, and these monsters have dehumanized themselves. That it probably does rob me of some of my humanity to deny theirs--their childhoods and the mothers who loved them, the spiritual vacuum that drives them to such a hopeless perversion of faith--is fine with me. It's the least I can give in response to such horror, and I'm fully prepared to answer for it.

But calling all Muslims savages is not okay, and it would make us savages to dehumanize them so. I see thought leaders and advocacy media outlets claiming that Islam preaches hate, or that only Muslims kill in the name of religion, or that all Muslims believe in killing Christians and I start to get breathless, again.

It isn't true.

This is how terrorists attack a continent with putting a single shoe bomb on the ground. They tempt us to fall back on the easy demarcations of religion and race--and if you doubt race plays a role ask any Sikh or Coptic Christian in the US about the anti-Muslim vitriol he's endured. They invite us to sacrifice our own humanity by denying others theirs. Hell, they even model it for us.

Wild can mean a lot of different things. It can mean lost in a primordial wood or lost in a dangerous delusion. The anti-hero of Huxley's dystopian Brave New World was called Savage because he epitomized the humanness that everyone else had forgotten.

Other always means other. It always means less.

Our shared humanity should not be easily surrendered. It's what makes us want to raise our families and nurture our communities in peace; it's why good people have an innate respect for human life. Trafficking in the false claims that most Muslims support ISIL or that their acts are a natural extension of Islam seeks to dehumanize nearly 2 billion mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Not only is that a barbarity in its own right, but it makes it even harder to find the common ground we need to fight the real savages.

And fight them we must, on every front. The question is, do we know real savagery in our hearts when we see it. If not, then it won't mean other for very long.