Know the Enemy

“Who am I to psychologize?” I found myself saying to a friend recently, who’d asked a question about another friend. It seemed to demand a mordant reply.

We won’t go into the details. There are many closets in which people hide from the light of day, and suffice to say this friend of a friend had just stepped out of one. (It had nothing to do with “sexual orientation,” incidentally.)

To judge a person, to go behind the plain appearances and guess at motive and psychology – well, it is a common enough foible. Sometimes it goes beyond foible, and could be described as a survival skill.

The animals have it. They may judge from very simple appearances, but the question of motive seems constantly on their minds: Is this guy trying to feed me, or snare me?” Often they are more skeptical than humans in considering the “who/whom” of things.

The “judgment” against which Christ warned could not possibly have included routine attempts to understand what makes others tick. Rather: it is not for us to decide who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell. We need to free ourselves from the delusion that we (whether individually or collectively) are God.

Our judgments are provisional, and must be kept that way, in full cognizance of the possibility of error. How often, in retrospect, we wish that we had been more cautious, when all our deprecations come home to roost.

Nevertheless, in this funny old world where Christianity is not so much practiced as tiresomely parodied, it is necessary to judge, to “psychologize,” in order to avoid entanglement with evil, and when necessary, to defeat it.

In fact, like wary animals, we judge every waking moment, and could not do otherwise. What distinguishes us is not the wariness, but the moral flavoring of it. We are endowed with a “conscience” that operates quite differently from that of other creatures; with an empathy and a sense of “justice” that makes us incomprehensible to them.

The “empathy” part – the working of the projective imagination – paradoxically puts us at the apex of the food chain. That is how we got the upper hand on woolly mammoths. Put his mind to it, and a man can even outsmart a crow. It is our ability to see into the animals’ point-of-view, when they cannot see very far into ours.

From an animal’s point-of-view, we are perhaps completely mad; yet so dangerous that we need to be humored. It takes only a little experience with us to convince them of this.

So dangerous, indeed, that we need to be wary of each other. The first thing the traveler is likely to ask himself, when surrounded by people of another “tribe” or culture, is how to please and appease them. Knowing they are human is a good start, but this involves the knowledge that they can be quite subtle, and that human behavior encompasses an extremely wide range. Best to proceed with caution.

Yet “conscience” is innate. It is apparent in those whom we say “lack conscience,” in their verbal attempts to justify themselves.

I am thinking just now of those videos Arab terrorists have been releasing, in which they exhibit a propensity to behead Western captives. They also massacre Christians and Yazidis, and co-religionists of sects they consider to be errant.

The notion that they are evil and will go to Hell has occurred, apparently, even to America’s vice president. It has also occurred to me. One might say that we (Joe Biden and I) are judging them. It is not necessary to do that, however.

They’d like to kill the rest of us, too – are surprisingly candid in expressing this intention – and it is natural for us to take a dim view of those trying to murder us. Conversely, they seem to have formed the opinion that we intend to kill them: by now, perhaps a reasonable inference.

It could be said that we have judged each other. It might even be said that our two “tribes” are involved in what is becoming a battle to the death. I rather hope this isn’t the case, but we must keep our minds open.

Note that “we,” in the West, have an insuperable advantage over “they” who now govern the Ninevah Plain, should we wish to employ it.

This advantage is not technological, although it is true that we have the means to bomb them into oblivion, and they the means only to stage “incidents” here and there. From a purely military view, they are unwise to provoke us. But they do not see things from a purely military angle.

What, then, is our insuperable advantage?

It is, I am convinced, an old Catholic thing, which survives in the recesses of the Western mind. We judge them in a different way from the way they judge us; and this is the fundamental explanation of the power the West once exerted, and could still exert.

To them, this is an existential battle. We, their enemy, are so evil, that we cannot be understood, only destroyed. They seek a “final solution.” The world is to be cleansed, and then pure Islam will prevail. They “know,” with what they imagine to be certainty, that we will all go, quite literally, to Hell.

We, on the other side, “know” or can know nothing of the sort. On the contrary, we know the world is not made that way, that evil cannot be eradicated by material means.

Therefore we have the freedom to employ our “Orientalism”: to make judgments that are essentially tactical, about how to defeat this specific enemy, this specific evil. Our ambitions are, if Catholic, less grand.

Indeed, it may prove a survival issue. The proper understanding of “judge not that ye be not judged” is the grounding for that even more ancient human trait: to prevail by knowing the enemy, better than the enemy can ever know us.

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: