A friend of mine posted a video on Facebook released by the U.S. military.
The footage appears to be in infrared; a bright, night-vision green falls over the landscape. A road appears, dark against the backdrop.
Driving along the road is a van, glowing green in the infrared lens. The video labels the driver and passengers of this van as members of ISIL, the self-titled “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”.
A few seconds pass. The camera passes over its target.
A slender object flashes into view from the flank.
The view is now pure white. The whiteness fades over the course of several seconds, until the green landscape returns. Large, black plumes of smoke rise up from the spot where the van just was.
The site that posted the video called it the “feel-good video of the week, given the savagery and depravity of the targets.” Many commenters, including my friend, express a resounding sense of triumph. “May many more such airstrikes come,” they were saying.
This video was geared toward an American audience in particular, but people across the world have expressed similar sentiments towards the “targets”. ISIL (sometimes called “ISIS”) is a group of extremist militants who have come to occupy a large area of Iraq. They have uprooted the lives of thousands of innocent Iraqis, imposing strict theocratic law and exterminating all those who disagree.
We know them by their videos: Horrific acts committed against their own people, which they are all too proud to boast about.
We know them by reports: Bone-chilling accounts of refugees, far worse than their videos, and for which some brave journalists are now dead.
We know them by their signature black garb, which helps the world’s children today recognize them as the “bad guys” – the new generation’s own supervillains.
One way or another, we know them: Extremists. Terrorists. We’ve seen their kind before. These are the people who dehumanize. These people hold their own personal values over the lives of people around them. They are willing to kill to uphold these values. These values drive them to believe that somehow killing certain people will remake the world to better suit them. People outside of their own are no longer people; they are objects.
By doing what they do, they have renounced their own humanity. The members of ISIS had a chance to live normal lives alongside their fellow men, but instead chose to leave the realm of personhood behind. They are not like the rest of us: They are mindless, savage brutes, capable of nothing more than blind hatred.
So when we, the tolerant and well-educated citizens of the world, fire up the missiles and blow them to shreds, just like they deserve, we can then gather ‘round and celebrate, shouting, “Beautiful!”, “Eat that, scumbags!”, and “More!”
Stop the record. What just happened here?
We saw a video wherein several men’s lives ended. Then we cheered, crying for more.
“Don’t take this out of context,” you might say. “Those people are ruthless murderers, and proud of it. What should we do instead, put them on trial? The world is better off with them dead.”
Maybe that’s true. But before we beat the war drums and cry, “Kill!”, we should consider this for a moment:
When a smaller opponent fights a larger opponent, the principle is the same whether it’s martial arts, wrestling, or war. The smaller knows that the best way to stay in the fight is to bring the larger down to their level.
What did we say before, about these ISIS “terrorists”? At their core, they dehumanize: Their values lead them to consider various people as obstacles to the world they seek, and so they don’t feel bad when they kill those people. Rather, they enjoy it.
In the video, the ISIS terrorists are just that: Objects. They are obstacles to the world that we (particularly Americans) seek – a world without people like them. We’re happy to kill them.
We’re happy to adopt their hatred as our own.
Might this be exactly what they want us to do?
They claim to represent Islam, yet the majority of the people they slaughter are their own. It seems inconceivable that any Muslims elsewhere in the world would support them in the face of such inhumanity – even Al-Qaeda has condemned them.
But every week, it seems as though yet another developed, first-world country is forced to arrest some of their citizens for committing or planning to commit some violent act in ISIS’ name.
Why do people support them?
Just look at their videos, and you’ll know. They lead with footage of U.S. air strikes. Obama speaks out against them, advocating more such air strikes. Black-clad guerilla fighters fire rockets into the sky, made to look like action heroes.
To its supporters, ISIS isn’t about killing and maiming. ISIS is about fighting back against oppression.
As soon as ISIS can claim that they work to undermine a greater evil, all their worst atrocities become justified. All they need to do is point a finger at U.S. drones – perhaps the same drone which starred in our video – and say, “We’re not the enemy: That’s the enemy.
“They send machines to kill for them. They think we are insignificant, and are coming to take away everything you love. Keep your children safe. Fight back against the faceless foe. If you aren’t with us, you’re against us.”
If I were of Muslim faith, I would still be appalled at the lengths ISIS has gone to. But if I also had poor access to information, their message would nonetheless force me to consider the alternative: What if the Christian West wins? Look how many civilians the drones have killed already – perhaps they even killed someone I know. What if they chose to wipe us out for good?
If it means a safer world for my children, is it really so bad if I kill?
ISIS says it’s not. ISIS says it’s precisely what God would want from me to defend his Word, my livelihood, until death.
ISIS cannot be beaten with physical force because ISIS is not a physical entity. It has no physical borders, no nationality.
That is why any country seeking to go to war with ISIS must first understand them as an idea, as distinct from those individuals who believe it.
ISIS, as an idea, is fear: The fear of foreign invasion; the fear of other sects of Islam; the fear of one’s government, who would bring the enemy closer to home; the fear of one’s own neighbors – because they don’t appear to be as afraid as they should be.
These fears, together, form a mental bear trap. It clamps down onto the minds of otherwise rational people. It sends pain shooting through their every thought, and makes their eyes paint the whole world red: “How long until I can’t have these dinners with my family anymore? How long until this bed, this room, this house is all reduced to rubble by a drone strike? Worst of all, why is no one doing anything to prevent this?”
Americans cannot deny how familiar we are with this sensation. How many times have Bill O’Reilly or Ann Coulter openly suggested on television that any American who sympathizes with Palestinians must also sympathize with “terrorists”? And how many Americans watching at home nod their heads in agreement?
This is the idea of ISIS. The group’s tendencies are nothing short of genocidal (a little bit worse than Ann Coulter), but no matter how extreme they are, we must resist the trap of letting our hatred of them influence our actions, because that’s exactly what ISIS wants us to do.
O’Reilly-types love it when someone gets caught with a bomb in an airport – it legitimizes all the hateful things they say.
That’s why ISIS loves it when a U.S. drone blows up a truck full of Iraqis. That’s why airstrikes won’t kill them. They’ll only become more fervent in their hatred, more violent in their actions.
And from this comes the duty that now falls to us – to the citizens of the world. For if there ever can be a world in which people of all nations work together in peace, and groups based on unbridled hatred do not survive, we must begin to foster that mentality now.
Peace – the idea of it seems elusive at the best of times. Uttered today, it rings of pure fiction. But the only thing that’s standing in the way of peace is that same feeling: When we behave as though there could never be peace, then and only then is it off the table.
In fact, times such as these are exactly when a message of peace would have the most profound impact – for when used in place of weapons, peace is exactly what will bring a group such as ISIS to their knees.
We cannot ignore the fact that each member of ISIS, misguided as they may be, is a person. Each one was most likely born to loving parents, raised in the company of friends they admired, and who admired them. Each one is living out their life the only way they know how. Telling ourselves “yeah, but they’re terrorists,” doesn’t make that any less true. Murder is murder, no matter how evil the victim or what ends one seeks to fulfill.
We tell ourselves they’re “hateful” or they “lack empathy.” If we really wish to hate them on moral grounds, we’ve shown nothing if not that we, as a society, are insecure in our own moral foundations. And we’ve seen that any war we wage against them is predestined to be a war we cannot win.
John Adams said that the American Revolution was fought in the “hearts and minds” of the American people. The war against ISIS is one such war, and we need Adam’s principle more than ever. Rather than look to military tactics and strategic airstrikes to resolve this conflict, we should look to send a message of peace to the world. The goal of any war against ISIS can only be to reduce their influence, both in the region and in the minds of people everywhere; what better place to start than with ourselves? America is the world’s most powerful military force by any statistic, with a history of involving herself in other nation’s affairs to boot. Declaring that we fear for the lives of innocent Iraqis is the most powerful message we can send.
We would be showing the world that America cares less about proving itself in a fight against savages, and more about preventing senseless slaughter of innocents. We would be doing exactly what ISIS says they want us to do, and they will have nothing left to blame us for. We would force them to answer to their own people – to Islam – rather than to us, the invaders. ISIS support would vanish, their resources would run dry; the conflict would be over.
And in the meantime, as we continue to wage war in the name of peace, the least we can do is see it in ourselves to not harbor hate for the people we kill. As long as we keep killing them, let us at least appear to do so grudgingly. In the same way that a mother mourns when she’s forced to give up her baby for adoption, we must mourn for their humanity, which was never lost, but mistakenly given up.
Because the moment we start to enjoy the thought of killing them – the moment we come to rely on having such people in the world to hate – is the moment ISIL’s “savagery and depravity” becomes our own.
… Of course, the other extreme would be for America to just wipe them all out. But then which of the two peoples was the more justified in their fear?
This article was written by Michael Margaritoff. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Marjorie Wang