The New Yorker’s George Packer is a decent writer and occasionally insightful analyst, but he gets things spectacularly wrong sometimes. He was one of the so-called “national security liberals” who reluctantly supported the Iraq War. (To his credit, he later recanted.)
Packer has written a piece on ISIS and why they murdered Japanese journalist Kenji Goto. It’s a timely question, given the breaking news that ISIS released yet another sick snuff film today, this time depicting ISIS fighters burning a caged Jordanian pilot alive.
Here’s an excerpt from Packer’s article:
The Islamic State doesn’t behave according to recognizable cost-benefit analyses…. The Islamic State doesn’t leave thousands of corpses in its wake as a means to an end. Slaughter is its goal—slaughter in the name of higher purification. Mass executions are proof of the Islamic State’s profound commitment to its vision.
There’s an undeniable attraction in this horror for a number of young people around the Middle East, North Africa, and even Europe and America, who want to leave behind the comfort and safety of normal life for the exaltation of the caliphate…. They are idealists—that’s what makes them so dangerous.
In this sense, ISIS is less like a conventional authoritarian or totalitarian state than like a mass death cult. Most such cults attract few followers and pose limited threats; the danger is mostly to themselves. But there are examples in modern history of whole societies falling under the influence and control of a mechanism whose aim is to dictate every aspect of life after an image of absolute virtue, and in doing so to produce a mountain of corpses. ISIS doesn’t behave like a regional insurgency or a global terrorist network, though it has elements of both. It joins the death cult to an army and a rudimentary state.
Possibly Packer is right about the irrationality of ISIS’s actions — certainly they are uncommonly cruel exhibitionists and bloodthirsty villains. But having heard the drumbeats that preceded too many wars and having seen too many tin-pot local tyrants tagged with the “Hitler” label, I’m suspicious when politicians and media figures describe even odious groups like ISIS in such apocalyptic terms. And sure enough, in the last sentence of the final graf of Packer’s article, there’s a grim prediction:
One thing we’ve learned from the history of such regimes is that they can be stronger and more enduring than rational analysis would predict. The other thing is that they rarely end in self-destruction. They usually have to be destroyed by others.
Well, that’s probably true too. Hitler didn’t off himself after all – oh wait, he did! But only after his armies had been conquered and his country laid waste by WW2. President Obama, commenting on the news about the horrific murder of the Jordanian pilot, seemed to agree with Packer, saying ISIS is “only interested in death and destruction.”
Maybe. Or maybe they’ve observed how easy it is to lure powerful states into a ruinous conflict, thereby elevating their (ISIS’s) stature from a local band of murderous fanatics to a consequential actor on the world stage and enhancing their cred / recruiting prowess with other fanatics.
Packer is probably right that ISIS will have to be destroyed by “others,” but the others in question must be the people whom they aspire to rule in Iraq and Syria. If anyone doubts ISIS’s ability to drag the US back into a major conflict in Iraq — even with a sane, competent president in charge — imagine what would be happening right now if the unlucky serviceman they shot down, caged and set ablaze had been an American pilot.
By getting involved militarily in the campaign against ISIS, the US is playing a dangerous game. The opponent may be depraved death cult, but its leaders aren’t necessarily stupid or irrational; they may hope to bring out the stupid and irrational in us.