This is the stark reality we now face in the turbulent era of the Islamic State:
“We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle,” Graeme Wood writes convincingly at theatlantic.com, “that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of — and headline player in — the imminent end of the world.”
And this is the challenge the moderate world now must contend with as it sees its sons and daughters flocking, seemingly inexplicably, to take part in this ascendant and brutally focused quest, as Audrey Kurth Cronin puts it in Foreign Affairs:
“The group attracts followers yearning for not only religious righteousness but also adventure, personal power, and a sense of self and community. And, of course, some people just want to kill — and ISIS welcomes them, too. The group’s brutal violence attracts attention, demonstrates dominance, and draws people to the action.”
Some might think that the U.S. and our allies in the West and the Middle East have been drawn into a live-action, apocalyptic video game, given the Islamic State’s sophisticated penchant for social media and visual propaganda. But the horrors committed by the Islamic State — or ISIS, or those reprehensibly unremitting Islamist extremists — are, of course, all too real.
Just as President George W. Bush’s administration failed to see the 9/11 attacks on the radar, President Barack Obama’s administration failed to recognize the rise of the potent force we now know as the Islamic State, George Packer, of The New Yorker, reminded a Kansas City audience Thursday night. In late 2013, Obama, now infamously, told Packer’s boss, David Remnick, that ISIS was a mere junior-varsity player in the shadow of al-Qaida. Obama’s basketball metaphors would be tiresome if they hadn’t proved so dangerous.
“We were blind,” Packer said. “We did not know what was happening.”
Packer echoed the recent assessments by Wood and Cronin in attempting to put the Islamic State in context. That task is made much more difficult for a journalist like Packer, who values on-the-ground reporting and itches to get such a story “under my fingernails.” But he lives in the new reality where foreign correspondents are taken for ransom and beheaded.
The real wake-up call arrived last June when the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the resumption of the caliphate that disappeared with the Ottoman Empire 90 years earlier. Amassing territory, oil fields, banks, corpses and subservient people in its path, this self-declared state sent shockwaves throughout the region and began to redefine and complicate America’s role and relationships in the region.
Cronin is especially clear in drawing the distinction between al-Qaida’s brand of underground terrorism and the Islamic State’s grander ambitions. And she excoriated the fumbling U.S. efforts to treat them similarly.
The ISIS faithful are now destroying ancient artifacts and continuing to kidnap, terrorize and kill Christians, Muslims and others who dare to believe in alternate visions of God and society.
To hear the likes of presidential candidate Scott Walker compare the Islamic State to the unions he battled in Wisconsin is to grapple with the kind of ignorance that has led the world to this place and will fail to lead the civilized world out of it.
Few are optimistic about the near term, but these level-headed observers agree that a U.S.-led ground war would only add fuel to the raging fire. The only real strategy, Cronin and the others contend, is to help Muslim allies in the region contain ISIS, to stop it from amassing more territory and to force it into a position where it collapses in on itself by failing to expand.
A very tall and sobering order.