ISIS, the Black Hole of Evil


If Iran, Iraq and North Korea once constituted the Axis of Evil, what is ISIS?

It’s the Black Hole of Evil. It’s growing rapidly in mass, sucking in territory throughout the regions of the Tigris and Euphrates, and sucking in people — the sort who flock to evil and wish to be a part of it — from across the globe. You’ve probably already seen the statistic that there are more British Muslims in the jihadist force now than there are serving in the British military.

By comparison, al Qaeda is the Quaint Mom-and-Pop Shop of Evil, tut-tutting on the sidelines as its onetime offshoot grows and grows and grows, committing atrocities at which bin Laden’s old organization blanches.

I was inspired to this observation by Richard Cohen’s reflection today on the Islamic State as an expression of evil:

I used to not believe in evil. When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the evil empire,” I thought it was a dandy phrase but also a confession of ignorance. The word itself connotes something or someone diabolical — bad for the sake of bad. The Soviet Union was bad, I conceded, but not for no reason. It was bad because it was insecure, occupying the flat, inviting, Eurasian plain, and because it had a different system of government that it dearly wanted to protect. Reagan had it right, though. The Soviet Union was evil.

Now we are facing a different type of evil. The Islamic State, in whose name Foley was beheaded, murders with abandon. It seems to love death the way the fascists once did. It is Sunni, so it massacres Shiites. It is radical Sunni, so it eliminates apostates. It is Muslim, so it kills Yazidis, a minority with a religion of its own, and takes as plunder their women as concubines. Men are shot in graves of their own making.

The Nazis are back — differently dressed, speaking a different language and murdering ostensibly for different reasons but actually for the same: intolerance, hatred, excitement and just because they can. The Islamic State’s behavior is beyond explication, not reacting as some suggest to the war in Iraq — although in time it will try to settle some scores with the United States — but murdering and torturing and enslaving because this is what it wants to do. It is both futile and tasteless to lay off blame on others — the West, the colonialists of old or the persistent Zionists — or to somehow find guilt in the actions of the rich or powerful because they are rich or powerful. You can blame the victim. You can even kill him….

Cohen was in turn inspired by this essay by Martin Amis in the Financial Times over the weekend. I’m still plowing my way through that. More observations may be forthcoming in this space…

31 thoughts on “ISIS, the Black Hole of Evil

  1. bud

    After 13 years waging the “war on terror” all we have to show for it is even more terror. I guess all those boots on the ground during the Bush years and drones in the air under Obama haven’t accomplished much more than get people killed and treasure squandered. Time for a sea change. Let’s quit all this foolishness trying to impose American “exceptionalism (ie western religious values and capitalism) and just try to mind our business and limit our foreign policy to humanitarian efforts.

    1. Brad Warthen

      You seem not to be paying attention to what’s going on here. You’re trying to shoehorn the situation to fit your ideal notion of the way the world should be…

      1. Dave Crockett

        Bud may be shoehorning the situation to fit an ideal notion…but it seems pretty clear that we (the West in general and the U.S. in particular) can’t simply shoot and bomb extremists into submission. It seems pretty clear that we’re helping create more extremism all over this interconnected world.

        I’m not suggesting, as Bud may be, that we become isolationist. But I think we do need to do a much better job of trying to understand the roots of their extremism and put as many resources into that effort as we have in our overt military efforts. I don’t have the answers. I just have the questions: has anything we’ve done in the Middle East since 2001 substantially made us/the world any safer? And if not, what can/should we do differently moving forward?

        1. Silence

          I don’t believe that they can be reasoned with. Some people have a world-view that is diametrically opposed to our own, and the two cannot be reconciled.

          1. Doug Ross

            So we should kill them all. And all the women so they don’t reproduce. And all the children so they don’t grow up to be that way.

            There will never be fewer terrorists than we have now.

          2. Dave Crockett

            The current crop may well be impossible to reason with. But simply saying the two world views are irreconcilable and plowing down the same road forever seems kinda pointless.

            We may have to continue the traditional military approach now. I just hope that there are some people out there who are really trying to understand the roots of the radicalism and explore some alternative actions that, over the long haul, may offer ways to quell some of that radicalism. Maybe that is happening quietly now, but I’m certainly not aware of it.

            1. Silence

              Well, you’ve got one world view that supports freedom of religion, free expression, and individual freedom, ostensibly. You’ve got another world view that will kill you if you aren’t muslim, or don’t convert, or are the wrong kind of muslim. One side must ultimately prevail, because these two views cannot coexist.

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          Dave says “we (the West in general and the U.S. in particular) can’t simply shoot and bomb extremists into submission.”

          There’s nothing simple about it. But there’s no question that we’re up against something that can only be stopped with force. ISIS has made its absolutism plain. They’re not interested in negotiations. They’re like the alien in “Independence Day,” which said what it wanted us to do was “die.” (Which gave the audience permission to cheer the destruction of the aliens, without any “E.T.” touchy-feely doubts.)

          That the judicious use of force makes a difference can be inferred from the fact that this situation arose from military actions we FAILED to take over the last few years, in particular two things. We failed to keep a military presence in Iraq, thereby leaving a vacuum for ISIS to fill, and we failed to back the moderates in Syria when they had a chance to be viable — even though the president’s national security team told him that was the thing to do.

          That it’s all very complicated is reflected in this interesting piece in The New Republic about the way Assad is playing all of us — ISIS, the U.S., everybody — in his bid to stay in power:

          President Barack Obama’s decision to authorize aerial surveillance of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) positions in Syria suggests that airstrikes employing manned and unmanned aircraft may not be far behind. All of this is right and proper. Yet danger lurks. The head of Syria’s preeminent crime family—President Bashar Al Assad—waits, crocodile-like, for the American angler to tumble out of the boat. For Assad, opportunity knocks. If he handles matters correctly he can, with an assist from American inaction, return to polite society while others do the anti-ISIS heavy lifting for him.

          From the beginning of Syria’s 2011 popular uprising against a corrupt, incompetent, cynical, and brutal regime, Assad has pursued with singleminded discipline a very simple strategy: Sell oneself as the fire brigade to help hose the flames of one’s own arson. Determined to create an alternate opposition that would overwhelm peaceful protest, Assad emptied his jails of violent, Islamist prisoners and employed tactics of violent sectarianism to lure back to Syria the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) terrorists his regime once escorted to Iraq from Damascus. As AQI in Syria morphed into ISIS and the Nusra Front, and as foreign fighters swelled their ranks, Assad’s message—amplified by Iran and Russia—has been unchanging: “I am the bulwark against terrorism. Sooner or later the West will have to crawl back into my good graces.”

          Assad, his minions, and his apologists believe the hour of deliverance is nigh. Walid Al Mouallem, foreign minister of the pseudo-government providing clerical services to the ruling clan, has warned Washington against violating Syria’s sovereignty while offering coordination and collaboration against ISIS. The Obama administration has responded appropriately to the offer: with contemptuous rejection. Still, danger lurks in the murky waters of Levantine political intrigue. …

          We’ve done the right thing — for now — refusing to coordinate with Assad in striking ISIS within Syria. But that doesn’t prevent him from gaining advantage anyway.

          It’s all VERY complicated, and anytime we wield power — diplomatic, military or what have you — on the world stage, we have to have our eyes wide open.

          1. Doug Ross

            What is the ultimate end game result you hope to achieve? Eliminate ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas, etc.? Contain them to where they only kill a reasonable number of people?

            How much are you willing to spend and how many American lives are you willing to sacrifice to meet your objective?

            I’d rather build strong walls than go hunting for bear.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              There is no “end game.” There will always be challenges to peace and security. And they must be addressed intelligently and effectively, without illusions or wishful thinking.

            2. Doug Ross

              “And they must be addressed intelligently and effectively, without illusions or wishful thinking.”

              So why would you endorse John McCain and Lindsey Graham – they live in a fantasy world where they think we can fix other countries and cultures.

              All I know is that we have made no progress since 9/11. But that’s really not the goal is it? If we eliminate terrorism, what will all the defense contractors do to generate revenue?

            3. Silence

              If by “made no progress since 9/11” you mean: “haven’t had a major terrorist attack on American soil” then yes. Our building walls and playing “defense” has been 100% thus far. It won’t always be. Our “offense” has been less than 100%, but then, we’re not 100% committed to the game.

            4. Doug Ross

              Please list all of the attempts at repeating 9/11 that have been foiled. Or do we have to wait for Edward Snowden to do it?

    1. Juan Caruso

      Let’s adopt your more generous position, but give leaders like this their choice of prison for sedition or re-education camp for competency in the U.S. Constitution. What happened to sensible sedition laws?

      Your colleagues ignore them. Such tolerance gives advantage to rapidly reproducing Muslims with their multiple wives. Unfortunately, I must give them due credit for voting at a much higher rate (79%) than lazy infidels (only about 64% of registered voters in 2012). Some of Brad’s readers will be consoled to note that our U.S. Muslim population votes 85% Democratich. The rest of us well understand why they would vote for the Dems.

  2. Bryan Caskey

    On a more serious note, remember all that stuff I said awhile back about how the US not intervening early on in small conflicts means we’ll have to intervene later when they become big ones with multi-polar powers?

    Yeah, the rise of ISIS, Assad’s position in Syria, and a war-torn Iraq is “Exhibit A” for my case on that.

    Obama chose to do nothing early on. Actually, he did less than that; he pulled our forces out of Iraq. As a direct result, we now we have a middle east that is spinning out of control, which is now going to REQUIRE us to go back over there in an even larger capacity and perform a more difficult task.

    But the US probably won’t do anything until we get punched in the face again. As Churchill said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

    That’s what will eventually happen here. However, we’re still in the “everything else” phase.

    1. Silence

      I think that brings up a good point. In WW2 both Germany and Japan pretty much fully militarized and caused a whole lot of destruction. Aftewards, once we gained their unconditional surrender, we put bases in both countries, and are still there 70 years later. And neither has gotten out of hand since. We could have done the same thing in Iraq and/or Afghanistan – if we had wanted to. We could be all “yes, you can have your country back, but we are keeping this little piece, right here, and here and here and here, but the rest is all yours.”
      Presto. No more trouble.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yes, that is simple and obvious.

        And yet, people went bananas in 2008 when McCain was quoted making the simple, commonsense statement that we might need to maintain a presence in Iraq for 100 years.

        What he said was true, and yet people acted like he had two heads or something, like he’d said the more outrageous thing they’d ever heard in their lives.

        Our military assets have to be somewhere. As much as members of Congress and chambers of commerce want them to stay in U.S. bases boosting local economies, the most logical place for them to be is in bases in parts of the world where they can act as a sort of control rod, preventing eruptions in trouble spots by their presence. And if there IS trouble anyway, well, they are where they need to be.

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    ISIS is made up of sociopaths and psychopaths. Pyschopaths are born, but sociopaths are made. Push certain people to the edges of society hard enough and long enough, and they will strike back. Add a strong dose of absolutist religion, and you get jihad.
    We could potentially defuse the unjust societies that create sociopaths, but we need to check our own first.
    We certainly did not need to create a power vacuum by whacking Saddam Hussein!

    1. Silence

      Yes, its our fault that Islamic militants are wreaking havoc all over Northern Africa, West Africa, East Africa, the Middle East, Southwest Asia, Central Asia and East Asia. Right.

      1. Doug Ross

        It’s not our fault. It’s also not our problem. We have enough problems of our own to address before selling the good china to help our “neighbors” who don’t want our help and who really don’t like us very much anyway.

        1. Silence

          “We have enough problems of our own to address before selling the good china Chinet
          to help our “neighbors” who don’t want our help and who really don’t like us very much anyway.”
          Fixed that for you. Who’s still got good china?

          1. Doug Ross

            We’ve got plenty if you’d like. Eight place settings from when we got married 25+ years ago, used maybe 20 times. Then two other generations worth of china from mother-in-law and grandmother… all unused.

            1. Silence

              Doug, I think your experience with china is par for the course these days. I actually meant in my comment that The US has already sold the china to fund expensive programs, but your interpretation works too!

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