Wednesday, September 03, 2014


In The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins reacts to the video of Steven Sotloff's beheading:
In the final moments before an ISIS executioner beheaded the American journalist Steven Sotloff, the masked man offered up, in an English accent, a message to his viewers: "We take this opportunity to warn those governments that enter this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State to back off and leave our people alone."

Beheading an American hostage -- and a bound, kneeling one at that -- hardly seems likely to keep the United States out of the Middle East. Indeed, ISIS leaders couldn't have made the prospect of American airstrikes more likely if they had sent a video to President Obama begging him to drop more bombs.

Which raises a larger question: What could these people possibly hope to gain from such an act?
Filkins goes on to discuss bombing videos made (before the rise of ISIS) by Al Qaeda, which were collected and released under titles such as Greatest Hits II and Greatest Hits III. He quotes Abu Musab al-Zarqawi of Al Qaeda in Iraq: "If the enemy wins, we will burn everything." Filkins concludes that none of this is traditional warfare, with a political end in mind -- it's killing for the sake of killing:
It's hard to watch the video of Steven Sotloff's last moments and not conclude [that] the ostensible objective of securing an Islamic state is nowhere near as important as killing people. For the guys who signed up for ISIS -- including, especially, the masked man with the English accent who wielded the knife -- killing is the real point of being there.
I don't think the real point of being there is killing precisely -- it's living in a world of total violence, one in which everyone is in a gang (or in fear of gangs) and they're in the most fearsome gang in town. It's not just killing, it's having an enemy who's trying to kill you (but never quite does). It's being in a video game with real blood, and winning. It's exciting. It inspires admirers, and recruits as well (recruits make the gang even more fearsome).

Of course ISIS wants us to attack. ISIS rules its own turf, but everyone says the U.S. is the toughest gang anywhere -- so how badass are the guys in ISIS if they draw us into a fight and hold us off for a while? And sure, we might kill them, but, like teenagers who get killed by the police after shooting up a school, they want to go out like that. It's suicide by global cop.

So, no, it's not a desire just to kill. It's a desire for total violence. Plenty of sociopaths who desire to kill just ... kill. These guys are looking for a fight.


Victor said...

And don't forget the reward for dying for their cause - virgins.

Mark said...

"So, no, it's not a desire just to kill. It's a desire for total violence. Plenty of sociopaths who desire to kill just ... kill."

You've described the mindset of a good percentage of the supporters of the Bush war policy.

Lisa Graas said...

So, I take it that your "solution" is to round up all the crazy people instead of all the Muslims. How is that a better idea?

Steve M. said...

Wait, what? Where did I say that?

Cirze said...

Or just keep the troops stirred up for more war.

Benefitting whom?


So, no, it's not a desire just to kill. It's a desire for total violence. Plenty of sociopaths who desire to kill just ... kill. These guys are looking for a fight.

tgchicago said...

I agree with Victor. You've got the situation Steve lays out, plus the fact that these guys are true believers who think they have virgins coming to them in the afterlife.

From that perspective, they can stay around on this plane of existence, knowing full well that a peaceful Islamist caliphate will never happen any time in the foreseeable future. Or they can charge headlong into "righteous" battle, have some exciting warrior hero time, then claim their eternal reward. If you start from their (evil and twisted) worldview, it totally makes sense.

That's why bombing these guys might be necessary, but it cannot be sufficient. If young men in this region are not afforded other options, this will continue indefinitely.

Yastreblyansky said...

Top of the world, ma!

Ken_L said...

I think this overlooks the strategic importance of things like beheadings. They have several outstanding virtues for a guerilla force, such as showing how impotent the USA is and keeping Washington off-balance by putting the initiative with the Islamists. Most importantly, they serve to stoke the rage in America, which has been proven to cause irrational and counter-productive reactive measures since 9/11 and thus to undermine any coherent long-term strategy to counter Islamic fundamentalism.