Understanding ISIS

In an era when many people in the West have become desensitized to brutality by an endless series of atrocities, from Eastern Europe to Palestine, from Rwanda to North Korea, the brutality of ISIS has succeeded in shocking us: mass beheadings, genocides of religious and other minorities, burning caged men to death—and bragging about doing so online. That so many young people who, one would think, should know better are so attracted to ISIS that they travel thousands of miles to join is more shocking still. How could such a ragtag assemblage of malcontents be so successful in violence, and why is that violence so magnetic?

Experts of all kinds are engaged in an effort to make some sense of this unexpected phenomenon, well summarized in an article by “Anonymous” in the August 13, 2015 issue of The New York Review of Books. He writes that despite piles of information on the workings of ISIS, and analyses of its ideology, which he characterizes as “the peculiar blend of Koranic verses, Arab nationalism, crusader history, poetic reference, sentimentalism, and horror that can animate and sustain such movements,” “Our analytical spade hits bedrock very fast.” To have more information will not solve the problem of the “alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon.” He concludes in something like despair: “It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.”

Horrified and baffled. We have been here before. “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This sentence by Theodor Adorno has often been quoted because it encapsulates the bewilderment so many have felt about the atrocities of the Nazis: how could a cultured country such as Germany, land of Kant and Beethoven, Goethe and Heine, devolve into the atavism of the Third Reich? As with the attempts to understand ISIS, historians have accumulated much information about the contexts that led to the Nazis: the defeat in World War I and the punitive provisions of the Treaty of Versailles; the political chaos, not only in Germany but in Central and Eastern Europe generally, that followed the abdication of the Kaiser and the Austro-Hungarian emperor; the economic disasters culminating in the hyperinflation of the 1920’s; and of course the long history of anti-Semitism—all of which provided opportunities for deviant personalities to rise to power, personalities that would otherwise have been held in check by law and the police, not to mention a functioning democracy. As Robert Conquest pointed out, “In any country there are doubtless elements psychologically available for the right moment and the right regime.” These personalities exist “in suspension” until events precipitate their coalescence into a political movement that suits their temperaments. And it is not a question of education: Goebbels, the propaganda minister for the Third Reich and a worshipper of Hitler, held a doctorate from the University of Heidelberg, but that did not prevent him from glorying in violence. Intelligence often degrades into nothing better than cunning.

The question of education is an interesting one: It is often thought, mistakenly, that German education was of a particularly high caliber. It is true that German universities were renowned for their philosophers, philologists, and scientists, and it is assumed that education works against irrational and uncivilized thought and behavior. But seldom asked is, what is being taught, exactly? What is the ideology underlying the professors’ lectures? In the case of Germany, oftentimes the inflated metaphysics of German Romantic Idealism, the elevating of the emotions into metaphysical principles, perhaps as a kind of compensation for the fact that Germany, which after all was not unified as a single nation-state until 1871, had for centuries been more a belief than an actuality.

In order to turn the dream into an actuality, the Nazis focused on anti-Semitism as a means of hardening the line that defined Germanness and German exceptionalism; nationalism was further corrupted into myths of the Volk, of purity of blood and thought, of the need for eliminating pollution and uncleanness, the dilution of Germanness through mixing, not only of races but of ideologies. Thus the campaigns against not just races but labor unions, churches, and competing political parties.

ISIS is our contemporary avatar of the same impulses that drove the Nazis. Instead of Frederick Barbarossa and Tacitus’s book “Germania,” ISIS has the myth of the caliphate, a long ago time of Muslim supremacy that must be revived in order to purify society. Instead of Slavs, Jews, communists, and parsons, ISIS has Jews (of course), Christians, Yezidis, “apostate” Muslims, and the West. Both war against moral “degenerates” of all kinds, including homosexuals and nonconforming women (the Nazis preached that the greatest role for women was to make babies). Like the Nazis, ISIS extols violence and murder as the preferred method of “cleansing” the world—a modern day hyperbole of blood sacrifice.

I have not yet mentioned Hitler by name because it is a mistake to believe that this one single evil man is sufficient to explain the Third Reich. He was the precipitant that caused those psychological elements held in suspension in any society to coalesce into a cancerous mass and take over German society. Those who gathered around him, Goebbels, Goring, Himmler, Heydrich, Eichmann, and the thousands of nameless malcontents who (literally) marched under the swastika, made him into the Fuhrer. Only those to whose deep needs and frustrations he connected believed in his “charisma.” To others, both inside and outside of Germany, he was a nonentity, if not downright revolting. (Charles Manson was certainly charismatic, so far as his followers were concerned, but he fooled no one else.) For this reason, assassinating Hitler would have done little to change the Third Reich; a successor would have been found. Likewise, “taking out” the top leaders of Al Qaeda and ISIS has not and will not cripple these movements, as others have and will step in and take over.

The bafflement felt by Anonymous comes from his conclusion that ISIS resists explanation, that the bedrock on which it rests resists his analytical spade. ISIS, he says, cannot be explained; and like many of us, he has a horror of the inexplicable. But I believe that both Nazism and ISIS can be explained, but to do so we need to go deeper than social and historical causes. It is true that ISIS is a result of the chaotic conditions of the Middle East, exacerbated over the decades by the interventions of foreign powers, not least of the United States, but we need to remember that the Middle East has never been a peaceful paradise, no matter how far back the historian wishes to go: Ottoman, Crusader, Roman, Greek, not to mention the constant wars detailed in the Old Testament.

But the Middle East is not exceptional in this regard: Name any region of the world and you will find a long timeline of violent conflict, both within societies and between. Evidence of human violence appears very early in the archaeological record, to at least 430,000 years ago according to a recent discovery in Spain (taking violence in the human line well before the rise of H. sapiens sapiens). As one scientist explained, “We have not changed much in the last half million years.” Except, that is, for the lethality of our weapons and the sophistication of our excuses.

Anonymous’s analytical tool chest lacks any mention of evolution. Perhaps he and others believe that human beings, especially human beings of “our culture,” are (or should be) somehow beyond the reach of biological imperatives, especially those that drive evolution, such as natural selection (“survival of the fittest”)—perhaps because of the discredit that followed perverted uses of the theory by the Nazis and racists in general. But evolution made us just as much as it made any other creature. The human line goes back 5 to 7 million years, when it split from the line that led to modern chimpanzees, but our species, H. sapiens sapiens, is no older than 200,000 years, and the history of “civilization,” if we use the development of agriculture as its starting point, extends no further back than about 12,000 years ago. Clearly, an insufficient amount of time has elapsed for us to evolve into pacific, wholly culturally determined, nearly angelic creatures.

In other words, violence is part of our evolutionary legacy because violence is part of evolution itself, it is one of the engines that drives that particular machine; as Darwin pointed out, many are born, few survive. Because of our intellectual prowess we have developed cultures which have the effect of mitigating the other drivers of evolution (infectious disease, availability of food, climatic changes, etc.) and which have held in check the violent impulses of individuals (though not of men-en-mass: as the scientist Debra Martin has said, “Violence is culturally mediated and has been with us as long as culture itself has been with us.”) It may be, as Jenny Diski has written, that government and religion attempt to suppress violence, but “the brute, the beast in us, always lurks,” and sometimes the brute becomes the government, or the religion.

Violence has an inherent visceral appeal, so much so that much of human art depends upon it for the creation of beauty and emotional appeal: think, for example, of those grand cinematic scenes of destruction and blood-red flames, in slow motion, accompanied by soaring classical music, that occur at the climax of so many films. Recall the scene at the end of “Platoon” and “Adagio for Strings” or “The Year of Living Dangerously” and Straus’s “Four Last Songs.” Their implicit message of the profound beauty of violence is made explicit in the poem “Hatred” by the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska:

Need we mention all the songs it has composed?
. . . . .
Let’s face it:
It knows how to make beauty.
The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies.
Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns.

Earlier in the poem, Szymborska traces the impulses that lead to hatred and its symptom violence: “erotic ecstasy” and

It’s not like other feelings.
At once both older and younger.
It gives birth itself to the reasons
that give it life.

As for “other feelings,” such as “brotherhood” and “compassion,” they are “listless weaklings” when compared to hatred/violence.

In other words, violence and its antecedent hatred (and greed, lust for power, etc., which in my book are all mutations of hatred) are deeply rooted in human instinct and can be held in partial check only by some form of civilization (remembering that even great societies can succumb to the attractions of violence—the Roman gladiatorial games come to mind as one example); and always, civilization is a fragile structure that can collapse when the violent bear it away.

The circumstances Anonymous cites are inadequate explanations for ISIS (and by extension Nazism and other genocidal regimes), they provide the opening for the worst of human impulses to hypostatize – all of us generate mutant cancer cells, but most of the time our bodies recognize their dangers and destroy them, but sometimes circumstances are such that a cancer cell can evade the body’s defenses and grow without restraint until it takes over and destroys the body. Similarly, societies can muddle along for generations, holding the worst of its citizens at bay by laws and policing, but when under severe stress these defenses falter and fail, providing the opportunity for the worst to proliferate and take over—with the same outcome as cancer, the death of the society itself.

See also my posts on Joachim Fest and “Are We Nuts?”


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