The New York Times reports: The reports are like something out of a distant era of ancient conquests: entire villages emptied, with hundreds taken prisoner, others kept as slaves; the destruction of irreplaceable works of art; a tax on religious minorities, payable in gold.
A rampage reminiscent of Tamerlane or Genghis Khan, perhaps, but in reality, according to reports by residents, activist groups and the assailants themselves, a description of the modus operandi of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate this week. The militants have prosecuted a relentless campaign in Iraq and Syria against what have historically been religiously and ethnically diverse areas with traces of civilizations dating to ancient Mesopotamia.
The latest to face the militants’ onslaught are the Assyrian Christians of northeastern Syria, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, some speaking a modern version of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Assyrian leaders have counted 287 people taken captive, including 30 children and several dozen women, along with civilian men and fighters from Christian militias, said Dawoud Dawoud, an Assyrian political activist who had just toured the area, in the vicinity of the Syrian city of Qamishli. Thirty villages had been emptied, he said. [Continue reading…]
In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, some Americans, perceiving echoes of the government-fueled national hysteria that followed 9/11, now regard the attention being given to ISIS as disproportionate to the size of the threat.
A few days ago, one commentator described ISIS as: “A nasty nuisance, which has killed thousands in the Middle East, but a nuisance nonetheless.”
If one subscribes to the Steven Pinker view of the world, then how bad the current situation is, just comes down to numbers.
Fewer people have been killed by ISIS than by barrel bombs dropped by the Assad regime in Syria, or were killed during the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The threat to humanity posed by climate change, far exceeds all other global threats, including what can arguably be called a minor threat from ISIS.
But if an issue is defined as not rising above the threshold of being a nuisance, solely based on numbers, then since between 1882 and 1968 only 3,446 blacks were lynched in America, should the racial violence occurring during that chapter in this country’s history be described as having been no more than a nasty nuisance?
The very fact that we view lynching as emblematic of a chapter in history, illustrates the fact that significance can never be reduced to numbers.
In France, the death toll from the Charlie Hebdo shootings was little more than the average number of fatalities that occur every day on France’s roads.
Since statistically, the French face little more risk from terrorism than they face from traffic accidents, does that mean the French government should devote the same amount of time and resources to addressing road safety as they do to tackling terrorism?
Again, this doesn’t just come down to numbers. For one thing, there’s no reason to view road safety as a problem that risks escalating. Neither is there reason to imagine that individuals or groups of people have a specific interest in making the roads more dangerous. Road safety is an issue that gains ongoing and appropriate attention from every relevant constituency from central government to local government, town planners to school teachers, and vehicle manufacturers to medics.
The fact that it is the type of issue that generally gets effectively addressed, is the very reason it is largely ignored in political and popular discourse.
Conversely, while it’s easy to say that ISIS presents a problem that needs “to be dealt with,” the very fact that it remains unclear what mechanisms might be effective in tackling this problem, is one of the main reasons ISIS continues to grab the headlines.
ISIS might not represent an unstoppable force and yet its campaign of violence has proved very difficult to contain.
Politicians glibly talk about the strategy for defeating ISIS, yet no one has made a convincing case that such a strategy has been found.
Some observers believe that each time another ISIS headline appears, the group has simply been served up the attention it craves, but to dismiss this as a group of attention-seekers is to gravely misjudge ISIS’s ambitions.
A year ago, before ISIS had become a household name but after it taken over Fallujah, President Obama wanted to downplay its significance in what became an infamous dismissal — he said they were just “a jayvee team.”
In those early months of 2014, ISIS used America’s inattention to its full advantage.
Whether showered with or starved of attention, ISIS pursues its goals because they have less concern about how they are perceived by Americans, or for that matter the rest of the world, than we might imagine.
The issue now is less about the quantity of attention ISIS garners that it is about the quality of that attention.
When viewed through the paradigm of the war on terrorism, it’s natural and appropriate to point to that neocon project’s manifold failures. We might also see this as the latest manifestation in a problem that cannot wholly be solved. In other words, that we need to learn how to live with what can be regarded as a manageable amount of terrorism.
But maybe we are being distracted by the category of terrorism itself.
In spite of the fact that ISIS has engaged in what are generally viewed as some of the most grotesque acts of terrorism ever carried out, it differs from all other terrorist groups in at least two fundamental ways:
- It has spawned a mass movement, and
- It has captured and now governs large tracts of territory.
While there was recent furious debate about whether ISIS should be called Islamic, there has been little discussion about its claim to have created a state.
That claim is treated as too preposterous as to merit consideration — the so-called Islamic State is surely destined to implode.
And yet that hasn’t happened and it isn’t about to happen. Neither is this a state that stands any chance of being recognized by any other, but nor does it seek such recognition. On the contrary, the recognition it seeks is from all those who reject the legitimacy of nation states — and this constituency is large and growing.