Daniel Solomon writes: Earlier this month, following the beheading of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto by Islamic State fighters in Raqqa, Syria, New Yorker writer George Packer noted that the group responsible for Goto’s death appeared “less like a conventional authoritarian or totalitarian state than like a mass death cult.” Packer was grappling with the political meaning of the Islamic State’s mass violence, which has devastated civilian communities across Syria and Iraq since the group joined the Syrian civil war in mid 2013. The group, which has struggled to control its territory since international airstrikes began last September, has used public killings of foreign citizens like Goto to demonstrate its brutal authority to an international audience. It has treated civilians in Syria and Iraq with even greater malice; reports of massacres like the execution of over 500 civilians in Tikrit, Iraq, last June are all too common.
But is the Islamic State closer to a death cult, or to a formal “state,” as its name implies? Two major theories of the state indicate that violence is not abhorrent to—and in fact, may be inherent to—the establishment of a state. For German sociologist Max Weber, among the most widely cited political theorists on this topic, the modern secular state is a political organization that “claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force” within its borders. That is, the state is concerned with the exercise of power — specifically with the exercise of violent power. In Weberian terms, the state’s monopoly is a constant fixture of its administration’s authority: That administration either successfully secures its power, or it does not. [Continue reading…]