ISIS and the glamour of deadly convictions

McClatchy: Ben Carson stirred controversy last week when he suggested Americans could learn something from the Islamic State terrorist organization. “They’re willing to die for what they believe, while we are busily giving away every belief and every value for the sake of political correctness,” he told a Republican meeting.

In an interview Monday with McClatchy, the retired neurosurgeon, who is seriously considering a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, explained his views.

Carson believes ISIS is resolute in its commitment to destroy America: “Do we sit around and wait for them to do that, or do we take them out?”

Carson’s poverty of thought is evident in his cartoonish yet commonplace expressions.

If an ISIS fighter makes a video that appears on YouTube and in which he pumps his fist into the air, promising that America faces destruction, this is a threat that deserves to be taken about as seriously would a threat to destroy the planet by changing its orbit, hurling it towards a fiery collision with the Sun. Just because the threat is made, doesn’t make it credible.

ISIS can neither destroy America nor Europe but it has already and continues to cause an immense amount of destruction in the Middle East — not as much destruction as that wrought by the Assad regime, but it’s no exaggeration to say that ISIS threatens the stability of the whole region and threatens the lives and way of life of everyone within its reach.

How much harm ISIS can do in the West depends much less on the direct capabilities of the group than it does on the way governments and the public react to events such as the Paris attacks.

The issue for the West is not whether it needs to prevent ISIS taking over the world, but what it can do to limit, reduce and ultimately end what can objectively, without hyperbole, be described as a reign of terror.

(The fact that from overuse the phrase, reign of terror, has lost most of its punch, does not render it meaningless. A movement whose instruments of political control are public beheadings, crucifixions, throwing people off tall buildings, chopping off hands, turning women and girls into slaves, and engaging in frequent mass executions, is imposing what must be called a reign of terror.)

In this challenge, the U.S. and its European allies can and should have no more than a supporting role, so this is not a binary choice as Carson presents it, between “taking them out” or doing nothing.

At the same time, anyone who imagines that there might be some kind of purely non-military strategy for dealing with ISIS, seems to be indulging in wishful thinking.

When it comes to purity of conviction, the only group currently involved in the fight against ISIS that seems to be completely clear about what they are fighting for are the Syrian Kurdish men and women in the forces of the YPG.

If, as Carson sees it, the willingness to die and the willingness to kill, are the measure of the depth of someone’s convictions, then ISIS is indeed a force of unparalleled conviction.

The problem in reading the nature of these convictions in this way is that it presupposes that anyone who has formed such an intimate relationship with death, knows both what he is fighting for and what it means to die.

I suspect that large numbers of ISIS’s fighters understand neither and that the focus of their conviction is not a deeply understood cause served by death, but a conviction that killing and dying are inherently meaningful.

That meaning is not derived from self-knowledge or an understanding of life, but instead from a fatuous desire to be praised by others. In other words, death in ISIS, offers a gateway through which young men burdened by the sense of being nobody can (they imagine) instantly become somebody.

This is jihadist reality TV in which its stars make their names and enjoy their 15 minutes of fame on Twitter. It turns video games into real life and its appetite for carnage is no more meaningful than the make-believe carnage that gets churned out of Hollywood.

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