Sunday, November 15, 2015

Daesh's Dirty Fuel

The news about the Paris terror attacks hit me while we were enjoying an evening festivity on the beach. I was reading about a rising death count and hostages trapped inside a concert hall while watching my kids shimmy to "La Vida es Un Carnaval." It felt incongruous, to say the least.

I predict, like many others, that these attacks will continue and will grow in frequency. ISIS -- or rather, Daesh, to use the more appropriately derogative term -- is fueled by hatred whipped up to a frenzy. For an interesting perspective on why and how that hatred grows, Cass Sunstein offers a really interesting sociological analysis to complement the historical and cultural reasons that are also operative.


There is power in hatred, of course. It's an explosive passion, and it will fuel bold action. A people driven by hatred will leave a trail of destruction behind, like the smoking wreck following Smaug's orgy of destruction.

But how do you defeat a dragon?  Do you fight fire with fire?  Do you match their hatred with yours? Is the reaction of the West going to be to stir up a conflagration of fear, suspicion, and hatred against Muslims? Or is there some alternative way, perhaps a tiny chink in the scales that can be exploited?

Responding to hatred with hatred would actually be feeding the dragon. On the one hand, we have to respond to the threat with force -- I'm not suggesting we offer flowers to people who are beyond the point of rational dialogue and who have demonstrated a depth of depravity and evil that beggars the imagination. We must speak the only language they understand: power. They cannot be contained or reasoned with. They must be defeated with decisive strength.

But the moral fuel behind our response should not so much be hatred for them as love for our own cultures and peoples. Hatred is a dirty fuel that leaves pollution behind it in the form of hidden costs whose bill we have to pay later on. Politicians who use hatred to fuel their own rise to power are not inherently constructive people, no matter their claims to have the secret to a country's greatness.

I'm all for patriotism and loyalty to country. It might be because I see my country more through the prism of what it once was or what it ought to be, rather than what is really there. That's a valid criticism; it might also be a typical quality of love that it sees what we can be, not just what we are. But isn't also possible that who we could be is just beneath the surface of what we are now? Sometimes extreme events make us rise out of our mediocrity and catch a glimpse, once again, of our true mettle.

There can be an unexpectedly transcendent side to tragedies, because they can slice into the heart of a people and reveal what we are made of. In some cases, they also shape a national character, because we choose how to respond. And that choice, to some degree, defines us anew. As long as hatred or fear do not coopt our response, it can be an inflection point for growth and unity.

The jihadists want France and the West to be afraid and to begin to hate. They don't care if Muslims are the target of that hatred; in fact, they would be pleased to see Western governments crack down on Muslim populations and subject them to unfair treatment, because that would feed into their narrative that the West is an aggressor that hates Islam. Disproportionate or unjust restrictions against ordinary Muslims would drive new recruits into their arms. Likewise, the rise of xenophobic far-right groups would betray the West's highest ideals, corroding the national discourse and bringing out our ugliest impulses to exclusion, prejudice, and hatred.

In addition to the necessary use of force to crush Daesh abroad, we also have to look for the chink in the dragon's armor, the hidden weakness to be exploited. Is it the claim to religious legitimacy? In that case, as Graeme Wood argued, the best response would be to prevent its so-called prophecies from coming true. If the caliphate does not expand geographically, Daesh will begin to look like just another failed state, not the 21st century version of an inexorably victorious Mohammed. Is the weakness its own shaky unity with fellow jihadists? The power struggles between Daesh and Al-Qa'ida are still going on, and some foreign fighters have given up the fight, discouraged that they are not killing Assad's men as they had hoped, but are instead killing rival jihadists. Perhaps intelligence services could also focus on sowing internal discord within Daesh, so that they can no longer distinguish between friend and foe. If they crack down on their fellow jihadists, then many fighters would become ever more disillusioned and wonder, in their heart of hearts, if Daesh is really everything it claims to be.

Daesh's dirty fuel is its hatred of the West, situated in its simplistic good-versus-evil narrative. I think our efforts to crush them militarily (and also financially, by cutting off their funding and supply lines) should be complemented by a more subtle form of psychological warfare to dilute their passion and belief in their cause. The Vietnamese used psychological warfare against the United States, Henry Kissinger argued, by dragging out the Vietnamese War and making it seem like a road to nowhere, an ongoing hemorrhage of money and blood. Support for the war unraveled, especially on college campuses, and domestic political pressures contributed to its ending with a whimper, not a bang.

We need to try analogous tactics with Daesh. In addition to military tactics like airstrikes, we need to unravel its legitimacy from within, doing whatever we can to defeat the ideology, the hate-filled virus that infects and begets new zombies by the thousands. On the grassroots level in Western countries, I think the best qualified individuals to fight the virus are the Muslim communities themselves, perhaps even the Syrian refugees who can testify, firsthand, to the monstrosity of Daesh in their former homeland.