Mary Wakefield

Is forgiveness a weapon in the war on terror?

A former Liberian warlord persuaded me that it is possible to rehumanise monstrous men

27 September 2014

8:00 AM

27 September 2014

8:00 AM

Could you ever torture someone? Could you, under different circumstances, in a different world (I hope) than the one which led you to this Spectator, be as brutal as the fighters of the Islamic State? Your answer, I reckon, is most likely to be no. Most people these days talk of IS jihadis as if they’re unnaturally evil, an aberration — and you can see why. If the IS are uniquely bad, it means we don’t have to re-evaluate the species, and to boot, it gives us licence to stamp them out.

It is tempting to think of them as an anomaly, but on this point I’m with Toby Young, who earlier this month wrote that the Catholic notion of original sin explains brutality best. The seeds of cruelty are in all of us — not just IS, or young men, but girls and grandparents too. We could all, if we chose, grow into terrible monsters. Nothing human is alien to me and all that, which is sometimes used as if it were an excuse these days, but is not.

What we forget about IS, I think, is that the boys who herd off to join the jihad in Iraq or Syria don’t usually start off as monsters — they are made into them along the way. There are techniques for making sadists out of young men that have been practised by militias worldwide and throughout history. In fact all that throat-cutting and torture, which seems so particularly diabolical for being unnecessary, is actually a crucial part of the monster-making process itself.

I heard all about it once from an expert, a man by the name of Joshua Milton Blahyi (General Butt-Naked to his foes), who was once a warlord in the Liberian civil war. Back in the bad old days, Joshua specialised in turning boys into psychopaths, and though his recruits were often younger than your average jihadi (12 to 18, say) there’s no hard line between boyhood and manhood, and the method was anyway much the same for twenty-somethings, he said.

I was introduced to Joshua in 2008 by a daredevil older cousin, and interviewed him on his breeze-block porch on a hill outside Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. It was the rainy season, and the monsoon tore down behind him. I remember Joshua’s huge head, beaded with sweat.

He began, he said, by promising boys status. ‘They followed me at first because I was powerful and strong, and they wanted to be important like me.’ It was crucial that this first step was freely taken; that it was their choice. After that, the monster-making began. They were shown violent movies. ‘So they can see,’ said Joshua, ‘that these people in the movies, they intentionally shoot people that die, that killing is just a Hollywood game.’ Hollywood movies, I asked, not African ones? ‘Yes, Hollywood films.’

The next step was to let them play with guns, shooting blanks, showing off, pretending to kill, and then: ‘We give them a knife to stab dead bodies,’ said Joshua. ‘At first it is hard for them, they feel fear. Later they are stabbing the bodies on and on… On and on and on.’

Of all weird and horrifying elements of our conversation, that’s the bit I liked least: ‘On and on and on.’ It’s as if, in the act of stabbing corpses, a switch flipped that suddenly undid the boys’ humanity. Joshua agreed: ‘After that they are wicked. They are happy to kill.’

For the purposes of understanding — not in any way excusing — the IS, it’s interesting that Joshua said that the leader of an army of man-made monsters can never rest. You must escalate the violence all the time, he said, so as to keep the boys in line. Once they’re happy killing, you make them rape, torture, behead. There are things Joshua made his young recruits do that are too horrible and too sad to repeat, but they served this triple purpose: to inure young men to compassion; to keep them frightened of and obedient to their commander and to scare the bejeezes out of the opposition. ‘If our enemies think we are crazy, so we win before we even fight.’

Does it help to understand that all this horror beamed back from the IS isn’t actually gratuitous; that if you’re out to win an asymmetric war it serves a purpose? I think it does. It should, if we’d any nous, help us understand how to combat the IS too. Islamist commanders dependent on diabolical reputations should be laughed at, not treated as bogeymen. One further useful point: in Joshua’s experience, man-made monsters can be re-humanised, though his method may be, for some, more distasteful even than the original brainwashing.

Joshua gave up his career as a psychopath warlord after a visit from a local Christian preacher. He had sacrificed a baby to the hungry tribal spirits who ensured his safety in battle, and was preparing for just another skirmish, when this preacher braved the rebels’ den to beg him to repent. Perhaps Joshua was already beginning to sicken of blood, because for some reason he didn’t kill the man, but listened. Then he disbanded his army and is today a preacher himself.

There are many who are cynical about Joshua’s conversion, and it’s true, epiphanies are all the rage among former warlords in Africa, especially those with an eye on politics. But I saw the shadows shift behind Joshua’s eyes; the uncalculating chaos in his mind. He’s a man driven almost mad by what he’s done, and I chose and choose to believe him.

There’s at least a partial proof in his new mission too. For the last few years Joshua’s been seeking out the boys he once turned into killers, converting and rehabilitating them. First he weans them from amphetamines, then he helps them confront that fateful choice they made. After that, if they are to remain in Joshua’s church, they must visit their families and ask for forgiveness. It’s interesting to me, a Catholic, that just as original sin best explains our propensity for cruelty, so the recovery from sin requires repentance, confession, mercy, absolution.

Some say that Christianity is just a useful crutch for recovering psychopaths in Liberia, because west Africans will always believe in spirits. Joshua and his boys will swap their murderous old demons for a benign Christian God, but never for the lonely void of atheism.

In which case, remember that the brutalised boys of the IS are inherently spiritual too. They have believed in and followed a god who demands murder and offers glory. If and when they ever come back, perhaps, like Joshua’s boys, they might be best served by one who offers forgiveness.

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  • Mike

    If a terrorist had planted a nuclear device in a major city and the only way to get information to try and disable it was through torture, I suspect the answer would be yes for most people, not no as mentioned above.

    Take that fictional movie Dirty Harry where a kidnap victim was going to die through lack of oxygen in say 4 hours unless found, would a father not resort to torture if that was the only way to save his child. Even if torture didn’t work its still justified under the circumstances. I know I would despite being a non violent person as it all depends on the situation as to how a person will react.

    However, what ISIS is doing is completely different as we’re not holding their kids hostage, we’re not committing genocide as they are and we’re not beheading people for political ends.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Fictional scenarios. How long before the exceptional becomes the routine? Why don`t the police cut to the chase and torture suspects? OK, bad example.

    • Livia

      If a terrorist plants a nuclear device in a major city hopefully for their sake they’re the kind of terrorist who likes pigs, because the sky will full of oinking squadrons swooping all over them, and you with your torture implements at the ready

      • Mike

        The majority of terrorists today wont eat pork at least if some one else is around but I hear many do like a bacon sarnie !

  • Augustus

    “If and when they ever come back, perhaps, like Joshua’s boys, they might be best served by one who offers forgiveness.”

    If and when they ever come back, without some markings on their passports, they will simply slip back quite easily into Europe or the United States undetected.

  • Damaris Tighe

    “They have believed in & followed a god who demands murder”: yes, it sure helps if your holy texts command you to do this. Joshua lived in a land where there were alternative holy texts that commanded him to lay down his arms & repent. In IS-land there is no such alternative. Ideas – especially those enshrined in religions – do matter. They can justify bestiality or call for peace for all men.

    At present the religion of bestiality is gaining ground.

  • The Hun

    Recently the British government admitted torturing German prisoners AFTER the end of the war.There was no urgent need of getting information from them, simply sadism. What good for the goose…..

  • “Islamist commanders dependent on diabolical reputations should be laughed at, not treated as bogeymen.”

    Laughing at them is not going to help the thousands of innocent people these religion-crazed monsters are intent of killing or raping. They have crossed lines beyond which no reasonable person would expect or grant forgiveness. Only the unreason of religious belief, that choice to listen to a chosen internal fiction, rather than be guided by the evidence of the real world around us, can lead a person to commit such attrocities, or to be prepared to forgive them.

    It does not suprise me at all that your Liberian monster turned into a preacher. He still has a problem with visions, although for him at least, it is an improvement.

  • Advocatus_Diaboli_69

    To rehumanise the monstrous men of IS (who are doing things women and young girls that make your blood run cold just to read of them) presumes that you’re first going to stop them in their tracks and then capture them. Then, as they are your prisoners, you have to feed, clothe, and look after them for long enough for your rehabilitation process to work.

    Call me impatient but I think they should be given the martyrdom they crave so that all that time, effort, and compassion can be spent helping their victims.

    • Ambientereal

      Sure, why disappoint those young men in their noble faith? Sending them to paradise will please them and us as well and much money and time will be saved for the humankind to go on.

  • Monty Dean

    Liberia was deliberately created for the blacks in America but they refused to go there. What the racists these blacks in America are.
    They don’t believe in Africa and in the black race.

  • grimm

    This pathetic hand wringing piece by Mary Wakefield is just another example of the inward looking mindset of Western intellectuals. “We could all, if we chose, grow into terrible monsters” she says – in an echo of the old “in a way we are all guilty” lament beloved of bleeding hearts. We don’t need to see IS as “uniquely evil” to justify attacking them just as exceptionally dangerous.

    I don’t imagine that victims of the IS quasi spiritual thugs care very much if Wakefield and her ilk have delayed passing judgement because they have looked into their hearts and seen their own potential for cruelty. I’m sure the victims would prefer the IS terror to be destroyed with swift decisive action. Forgiveness and soul searching are a postwar luxury.

    Does the Catholic notion of Original Sin really explain brutality best? The subject of this piece, Joshua says: ‘They followed me at first because I was powerful and strong, and they wanted to be important like me.’ This sounds to me as though it has more to do with our inherently animal nature (a longing for power, status, resources and territory) than anything as spiritually grandiose and intellectually tasteful as original sin.

  • jack

    I fear that we have zero chance of defeating ISIL using Obama’s approach. Even if Obama were a more trustworthy leader I still would not follow him into battle because I know he would desert me and betray me as soon as it suited his agenda. He would dump his own mother if she was of no use to him politically. In my opinion we need the same containment strategy we used against the USSR. We must try an build an “Iron curtain” type defensive line with the intention to keep ISIL from obtaining a port of the Mediterranean.This is what the Romans and Greeks did to stop the Parthians and Assyrians from getting into Europe. And make no mistake… the ISIL is the descendant of the powers that the Romans and Greeks fought. They are the ones who destroyed the northern tribes of Israel, the ones who killed the 300 Spartans, the ones who and sacked and burned the temple of Solomon. The Assyrians have always been associated with the worship of murderous gods. The Hebrew notions of the evil agents of hell; Satan, Baal and Beelzebub, are in part reflections of these Assyrian gods and the human sacrifices conducted to appease them.

  • Noa

    Do you really think we have the luxury of time and wealth of resources required to reform the two way conveyer belt of globalised murderers now flowing unchecked around the world and in particular the UK?

  • Crumbs

    If you have some inaccessible islands and a supply of dedicated missionary priests (any religion except you-know-what will do), and a source of charitable income, please do give up journalism and make this your life’s work.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “Tell us where you hid the loot, Buggsie, or you`re going under again.”

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    “After that, if they are to remain in Joshua’s church, they must visit their families and ask for forgiveness. ”

    ..At this point it occurs to me to wonder; if wanting forgiveness and wanting to be forgiving involves ( and/or revolves/ devolves/ evolves ) some weird position of vulnerability..which position would joshua think is the hardest to be in? ie the position of one who asks for forgiveness or the position of one who forgives somebody else?

    As a catholic I should hope Mary told Joshua that only God can really forgive. Us mere mortals can only turn the other cheek and let bygones be bygones.

  • Sarka

    One well-known Prague Jewish writer died quite recently. As a teenager he was in Auschwitz, the Nazis murdered the rest of his family but he was lucky and survived.
    He used to say that in the thirties at home his dad used to tune the radio to Nazi speeches to “have a good laugh” – since he found Hitler and his lads completely ridiculous…Unfortunately, as his son later said, “Hitler and his thugs had the last laugh on him!”‘

    I’m in favour of satire to puncture the appeal of murderous ideologues, but I’m not sure it’s the greatest or the most effective response to ideologies and their spokesmen who incite to horrors.

    I’m also not in principle against attempts to rehabilitate people who have done monstrous things in wars and political conflicts, not would I necessarily disbelieve those who say they have repented, and certainly their cases have some moral and psychological fascination…but this can hardly be a substitute for due punishment…and of course where children have been seduced and bludgeoned into monstrous actions serving the purpose of others. the situation is different (but the jihadi recruits from the West are not, frankly, like 12-year-olds captured and brainwashed by e.g. the Lord’s Army) Th jihadi recruits have chosen brutalisation – they find it attractive.

  • cartimandua

    You cannot rehab a psychopath and that’s science. The DSPD and ASPD programs have come up empty.Once the brain is broken it is broken.

  • kingkevin3

    There are some dangerously naieve people in the world..most of them female journos.

  • sebastian2

    You can only forgive those that repent and seek forgiveness. In so doing, they admit to the error of their ways by confessing their guilt. In return, they may be spared punishment (though they may continue to punish themselves). There is no retribution or revenge as such (though there may be discretionary just recompense and compensation: giving back of stolen property for instance). From that point on, rebuilding and rehabilitation can take place. The prodigal son retraced – reversed – his misguided steps and returned to his father’s house, to be seen only when he was almost at journey’s end. By that deed, his folly had been confessed and he was accepted. There were two parts to it.
    But what do you do when so called sacred texts endorse cruelty, and praise or celebrate conquest or slaughter? Or reward it? Then, there is no “fault” and nothing to be redeemed for. There can be no forgiveness, for what is there to “forgive”? Divinely ordained or righteous conduct is unforgivable. There is only appeasement – which is a different thing altogether.
    Unless mohammedans radically alter their world view, they won’t seek forgiveness for they will have done nothing wrong. It’s as if the prodigal son just kept walking blithely away, wholly confident of his route. No false paths. No wayward trails and no final search for reconciliation. We, then, cannot forgive mohammedans. They do not ask it of us.

  • Ambientereal

    By the way, is it not that the meaning of “brutalized” is “being victim of brutal actions”. Please enlighten me!!

  • serguei_p

    Does Islam has a notion of forgiveness and absolution in response to repentance and confession?

    The very title of the article would be understood differently by someone with Christian background (this includes Western Atheists or an African warlord, but does not include someone coming from Pakistan), as “saving souls” is a very Christian phrase.