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“A Crackpot, Deviant Sect”: An Apocalyptic Death Cult Has Its Limits

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
          —Voltaire

Years before Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden, this column argued that al Qaeda was capable of “theatrical acts of mass murder,” but was not a military threat to the United States.

The phrase infuriated some readers. Back then tough guys talked about fighting “Islamofascism,” supposedly a totalitarian ideology linking bitter enemies such as Iran and al Qaeda (but never Saudi Arabia, where the oil and money are, and where almost all the 9/11 conspirators originated) in an alliance to destroy Western Civilization.

Nobody says that any more.

My point was simple. Fascism was a poor analogy. Pundits’ Churchillian fantasies aside, what made Nazism “uniquely dangerous wasn’t merely Hitler’s hypnotic ideology. It was German militarism and hyper-nationalism run amok. Islamic extremists control none of the world’s 60-odd Muslim-majority nations. They have no army, air force or navy. They pose no military threat to the integrity of the United States or any Western nation.”

Nor does ISIS, al Qaeda’s more flamboyant and equally murderous rival. Last week’s appalling atrocities in Paris, Beirut, and Egypt underscored that reality in the bloodiest possible way. Almost everybody anticipates similar attacks in the United States. We must pray that they fail. However, as President Obama has said, a terrorist willing to die can murder innocents in restaurants as easily as in Connecticut classrooms.

Yet for all the fury and despair these attacks have evoked—I think of a little Parisian girl named Charlotte and her family—ISIS cannot and will not prevail. It’s less a political movement than an apocalyptic death cult, and definitely not an existential threat to the United States, France, or Russia.

Sane leaders would know better than to antagonize three of the world’s most powerful military establishments at once.

ISIS’s self-anointed “Caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is not that kind of leader. Think David Koresh or Jim Jones with a militia and a Koran instead of a Bible. Theologically, ISIS is to Islam as the Ku Klux Klan is to Christianity, by which I mean they’re a crackpot, deviant sect. But they’re even crazier than that.

Madness, however, has never prevented cult leaders from gaining an enraptured following. If anything, the converse appears true.

It’s a fact of life Orwell recognized in a 1940 review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf: “Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them, ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.”

Writing in The Atlantic, Graeme Wood explains ISIS’s hypnotic appeal to dispossessed and humiliated young men:

During the last years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Islamic State’s immediate founding fathers…saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdi—a messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world…. For certain true believers—the kind who long for epic good-versus-evil battles—visions of apocalyptic bloodbaths fulfill a deep psychological need.

It almost goes without saying that you can’t make treaties with such people. They can only be defeated.

The question is how? And at what cost?

Confronted with a newly belligerent press corps in Turkey recently, President Obama spoke mockingly about taking action that would “somehow in the abstract make America look tough or make me look tough.”

“When you listen to what [GOP candidates] actually have to say,” the president said, “what they’re proposing, most of the time when pressed they describe things that we’re already doing. Maybe they’re not aware that we’re already doing them. Some of them seem to think that if I were just more bellicose in expressing what we’re doing, that that would make a difference, because that seems to be the only thing that they’re doing, is talking as if they’re tough.”

Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum went down the list of the GOP candidates’ suggestions, but found nothing new:

There’s a lot we can do to defeat ISIS, and most of it we’re already doing. Airstrikes? Check. Broad coalition? Check. Working with Arab allies? Check. Engage with Sunni tribal leaders? Check. Embed with the Iraqi military? Check. There’s more we could do, but often it’s contradictory. You want to arm the Kurds and create a partnership with the Iraqi government? Good luck. You want to defeat Assad and ISIS? You better pick one. You want to avoid a large American ground force and you want to win the war fast? Not gonna happen.

Yes, Obama’s “red line” in Syria was a strategic blunder; his “junior varsity” remark was cocky and ill-advised. Also, Vladimir Putin’s right: The Assad government’s bad, but ISIS is far worse.

However, ISIS has turned to terror because it’s gradually losing the ground war, and the Caliphate is shrinking.

La belle France is not.

 

By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, November 18, 2015

November 18, 2015 Posted by | Adolph Hitler, ISIS, Paris Attacks | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Who’s Soft On Terror Now?

By the time U.S. Navy SEALs shot Osama bin Laden dead in his Pakistan hideaway, he was already becoming a historical anachronism. During his 10 years of running and hiding, events had passed him by. In the end, he appeared more David Koresh than Hitler or Napoleon — a religious zealot imprisoned by his own homicidal delusions, and little more.

“I am confident that Muslims will be able to end the legend of the so-called superpower that is America,” bin Laden once said. Like most fanatics, however, he failed to grasp the resilience of our democracy. America had largely recovered from the terrible strategic blunders that fear and outrage over the 9/11 atrocity had driven it to.

Al-Qaida’s hope was to lure the United States into Afghanistan, where they imagined it would destroy itself like the Soviet Union. That the neoconservative cabal inside the Bush administration would use the attack to justify invading Iraq provided an unanticipated propaganda boost.

The U.S., bin Laden told a CNN interviewer in 1997, “wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose agents on us to rule us and then wants us to agree to this … If we refuse to do so, it says we are terrorists.”

But images of Abu Ghraib faded as Iraq’s fratricidal strife yielded to steadfast military and diplomatic effort; America’s intention to leave Iraq became clear. Recent political tumult across the Arab world has owed nothing to bin Laden’s fever dream of a restored Islamic empire.

Writing from Benghazi, Libya, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen celebrated the liberation of “the captive Arab mind.”

“Bin Laden’s rose-tinged caliphate was the solace of the disenfranchised, the disempowered and the desperate,” Cohen added. “A young guy with a job, a vote and prospects does not need virgins in paradise.”

None of which should diminish our satisfaction at bin Laden’s death. I happened to be watching the Phillies-Mets game Sunday night when spontaneous cheers of “USA, USA!” broke out as fans got the news on their cellphones. For once, ESPN delivered a non-sports headline at the bottom of the screen.

My brother the Mets fan called the next day to express his feelings. Thirteen people from our New Jersey hometown, he reminded me, died on 9/11. I didn’t know any of them personally, but he knew several victims. Nothing can bring the victims back or erase their loved ones’ pain. Avenging those deaths, however, brought exactly what President Obama said it did: justice.

Bin Laden could have surrendered. Instead, he took the easy way out. Good riddance to him.

Everybody’s got their own way of remembering. Me, I get out my “Concert for New York” DVD and watch the Who turn Madison Square Garden upside down with a thunderous rendition of “We Won’t Get Fooled Again” — maybe the most powerful rock anthem ever written — for an audience of uniformed New York cops, firefighters and EMTs.

Announcing themselves honored to be invited, the English band played in front of a huge projection of the U.S. flag, the Union Jack and the World Trade Center. I can’t watch it dry-eyed. Everybody in the crowd looks like my cousin or somebody I grew up with.

No doubt you’ve got your own 9/11 memories. The question is: What to do with those thoughts and emotions now? Will the feelings of unity — those cheering fans in Philadelphia were Democrats and Republicans alike — bring about a lessening of partisan political anger?

President George W. Bush was quick to offer congratulations. Even Dick Cheney was gracious for once. It was Cheney’s classless accusation that President Obama was risking national security by dropping the “Global War on Terror” trope that set the tone for strident rejection of his legitimacy.

Soft on terror? Obama not only accomplished what the previous administration hadn’t done in eight years of trying, he’d put his presidency on the line. Had the SEALs’ mission in Pakistan failed like President Carter’s 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran, the recriminations would never have ended. Instead, it revealed Obama as one tough, shrewd cookie.

“For most Americans,” writes the New Yorker’s George Packer, “the killing of Osama bin Laden is the equivalent of a long-form birth certificate in establishing Barack Obama’s bona fides as commander-in-chief.”

Realistically, however, not much has changed except American self-confidence. The truth is that the nation panicked somewhat after 9/11. Anxious to find an opponent worthy of their own revolutionary romanticism, Bush administration neoconservatives turned Osama bin Laden into a virtual Hitler to suit their own Churchillian fantasies.

“Islamofascism” they called it. Enraged and distraught, many Americans bought it. Except that bin Laden’s deluded followers posed no military threat to the integrity of the United States or any Western nation. At worst they were capable of theatrical acts of mass murder like the 9/11 attacks.

And that was sufficient evil indeed.

By: Gene Lyons, Salon War Room, May 4, 2011

May 5, 2011 Posted by | 911, Democracy, Foreign Policy, Ground Zero, Homeland Security, Muslims, National Security, Neo-Cons, Politics, President Obama, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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