Black and white thinking is wrong, whichever way round you do it

The revelation that the Bush-era US was a rogue state responsible for systematic torture and other human rights abuses is as outrageous as it is unsurprising. For the world-weary and cynical like myself, it’s depressingly predictable that the only person currently in prison in connection with the CIA’s torture programme is John Kiriakou, the whistleblower who uncovered it. The US and its allies, including the UK, have a long history of committing monstrous acts against their own citizens and those of other states worldwide, and there is no indication that this is likely to change any time soon.

But while all reasonable and decent people should be appalled at the actions of Western governments, there are some who go too far, losing all perspective and pursuing their hatred of the West to illogical extremes. Here’s a typically nutty example I encountered recently:

Anyone who believes the ISIS beheadings are real are deluded beyond belief. Watch the videos with a critical eye and then watch a real beheading. The west creates Muslims as enemy’s to push their agenda. Pure and simple. It is so they can attack poor brown people and take their natural resources like oil etc. Google the difference between say Afghanistan before American intervention and after. America and Britain are the real terrorists whose politicians earn more from war than peace.
It’s not the people who need to give more but politicians and bankers who need to fuck off.

There is a natural human tendency/fallacy to interpret everything in terms of simple black and white, goodies versus baddies. Most people assume their own nation are the goodies, and turn a blind eye or make excuses for abhorrent behaviour that they would demonise another nation for. It is entirely appropriate to criticise this behaviour and call out anyone who claims that US/UK torture is justified or somehow not as bad as torture conducted in other rogue states.

However, it is no less incorrect to apply this simplistic thinking the other way around. People like the commenter above have made the same basic mistake, assuming that, since Western governments do horrible things like torture and genocide, the victims of neo-imperialism are the goodies, and must be incapable of barbarous acts themselves.

This assumption that “poor brown people” are a homogeneously innocent and deserving group is, in its way, just as racist and ignorant. Amongst the “brown people” there are poor, exploited ones; there are also rich, powerful, exploiting ones, who will happily trample the others for power and wealth, whether or not the US is involved.

It’s true that Western governments and media exploit the actions of a minority of Muslims to justify their own power grabs. However, extending this to the claim that those actions are themselves a fabrication by those Westerners takes one into the realm of paranoid, tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theory: “9/11 was an inside job”, etc.

The hypothesis that the ISIS killings and videos are fabricated is much less likely than the one that they are real. The former requires all kinds of implausible co-operation and deception between numerous, diverse individuals and organisations. The latter requires only that a few human beings (in this case, brown and relatively poor, though locally ascendant in power) were willing to commit brutal murder. If you’ve ever studied any psychology, you’ll know that, sadly, humans are much more capable of the odd act of senseless violence, than they are of flawless, complex co-operation.

The fake beheading hypothesis is also unnecessary, because if you drop the black and white narratives, you do not need to suppose that all Muslims are innocent victims of the West in order to criticise the West for exploiting the Middle East.

Similarly, you do not need to fantasise that the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan (1996-2001) were unfairly maligned local heroes, in order to be opposed to extrajudicial killings, drone strikes, the invasion of Iraq, etc. And I do not need to google Afghanistan to know that most Afghan people loathed the Taliban and did not want them to return, even if they also wanted NATO troops to leave (after they finished building the schools and hospitals).

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