Continuing with my mini-series of trying to puzzle out mysteries (see yesterday's attempt to explain the epidemic of non-fact-based argument)....
ISIS' goal isn't nihilistic. They're not trying to simply burn it all to the ground. Their eye is firmly on the prize: of establishing a caliphate to actually govern people. So then why the extreme brutality?
Strength and determination are essential for revolutionary movements. But this level of brutality is another thing entirely; it breeds dread and hatred - counterproductive if you want to earn the loyalty of eventual subjects. These guys aren't like Al Qaeda (or, at a vastly different pitch, Fidel's partisans) - in it for the conflict, with nuts/bolts governance a mere afterthought. No one denies that ISIS plans for mature governance. But their barbaric hyper-brutality seems anything but mature or responsible. It seems like an odd choice, considering their overall plan.
I've been writing about the sharp trend away from violence - a trend not readily apparent to us because the same enlightened sensitivity which makes us shun violence also heightens our shock at the violence which remains. We are thus prevented from registering - much less enjoying - the shift, with less and less violence shocking us more and more. But there's another view of that viral shift, from areas not yet infected by that virus.
Pacifism has, for time immemorial, been equated with weakness. Even forty years ago, mainstream America equated the term with hippy or Quaker weirdos, and smelled cowardice behind the high-minded philosophizing. If pacifism in the 1970s struck mainstream America as cowardly, one can only imagine how our foundational turn away from violence appears to parties in other parts of the world where sensibilities lag by centuries rather than by decades.
If you also factor in America's pitiful track record in fighting guerrilla movements, plus its dismal recent experience in the Middle East, it's clear that ISIS gains a tactical advantage from their image of extreme brutality. They've calculated, likely correctly, that we simply don't have the stomach for it, so it's in their interest to turn our stomachs as frequently and as extremely as possible. In so doing, they hope to stave off our direct intervention. It's their version of North Korea's strategy of feigned craziness (as with all long-sustained feints, burn-in's a big risk).
However, there's something to remember about American history. We dawdled over our entrance to WWII, out of isolationism rather than pacifism (a different motivator yielding a similar outcome). Germany and Japan both interpreted this as weakness. The Germans duly profited from our hesitation, slaughtering our allies and interfering with our maritime trade but always remaining beneath the point of full provocation. But, with Pearl Harbor, the Japanese stupidly woke "the sleeping dragon" (actually, burn-in - of bellicose over-confidence - was more to blame than plain old stupidity).
Can we rise to the aggressive occasion again if necessary, or will non-violence permanently repress our capacity? If our boiling point has not risen above practical reality, will ISIS ring our bell and awaken the dragon, or will they remain disciplined enough to present sufficient menace to repel us without out-and-out goading us?
I don't like the sound of my own questions. Am I turning into a hawk (as I once wrote, extremism - even of good things like non-violence - makes unwilling semi-extremists out of moderates like me)? Am I suggesting that non-violent societies will inevitably be usurped by more aggressive ones? Is it really possible that we're not becoming noble, it's simply that we're turning soft?
I don't know. And I don't know if we should send ground troops to fight ISIS. These are all complicated questions. But this much is certain: almost everything's zero-sum in human affairs, so perhaps we ought to dry our misty eyes at the magical ascendancy of non-violence and really think it all through. Because the more pacifistic you are, the smarter you've also got to be. This poster, for example, never really did much for me:
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