So, here we are bombing evildoers in Iraq again. This time it is allegedly a humanitarian act, to protect a tiny sect threatened with extinction. We are also in Iraq, apparently, to give air support to the Kurds, who are the only constituency in the country willing to oppose ISIS, ISIL, IS or whatever the New Caliphate is calling itself this week.
We are supported in these endeavors by — nobody. The Europeans are AWOL. The Israelis have troubles of their own, but will we suppose appreciate our pitching in to keep the wolf from the door. And their door is surely one of the upcoming stops on the ISIS Death and Destruction Tour. Other Islamic countries? It is imagined that Shia Iran will protect the part of Iraq already their puppet, but who knows. Everybody else? No.
The witty Pottery Barn principle of Colin Powell has been invoked as a reason for us to go it alone — “if you break it, you own it.” But this was a warning to be very cautious about getting involved in Iraq, not a reason to stay involved perpetually.
If you actually broke something at Pottery Barn that was going to take 20 years and $5 trillion to glue back together, you’d get a good lawyer, declare bankruptcy or mental illness, you’d change your name and address. But you would not actually spend the rest of your life on the lost cause of putting Humpty together again.
Hysterical Hawks like Lindsey Graham claim we must, must, must go all in against ISIS or they will come and get us at home. This is another tired refrain from the George W. and Dick C. years. We have to fight them there so we won’t have to fight them here.
Really? How are they going to get here? Rowboats? Yes, they really are Islamist extremists who want to put all Muslims who don’t share their views to the sword, along with all the infidels — Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, atheists, you name it. But can a radical force estimated by experts variously at 4,000 or 40,000 in Iraq (let’s be generous and say there are 100,000 worldwide, 200,000) really contrive to slaughter 99% of the people on Earth, say 6 billion give or take? Sounds a tad ambitious, not to mention fanciful.
No. They can continue to use our technology — Boeing jets — to get to us. They can use our weapons — stolen or bought with stolen dollars to shoot or blow up some of us. But a sense of proportion is in order. This year we are going to spend about $60 billion on Homeland Security, $50 billion on Intelligence (this does not count almost $600 billion on Defense, nor law enforcement in 50 states) to make it difficult for ISIS to succeed. A few suicidal bomb-wearing nut jobs may get through. But what is the alternative? Crusades? The squandering of more blood and treasure largely to keep ISIS from slaughtering their neighbors who are unwilling to defend themselves?
Yes, there is real, bloodthirsty, psychopathic evil in the world, people willing to do anything to force others to bow down to their idols or die. It was costly waiting too long to stop Hitler. It was costly containing and outlasting Stalin and his successors. But those were vast, technologically sophisticated national enemies.
Maybe ISIS crucifying and beheading infidels will prove irresistible to one billion sane Muslims. We must pray it isn’t so, but maybe ISIS has delusions of grandeur. But we don’t have to share them. They are more akin to barbarian hordes that have periodically come galloping out of their part of the world to lay waste to civilization. But once again, it is modern technology that magnifies the problem. In previous centuries news of such threats to imperial outposts took weeks or months to arrive at the home of the current empire. Today the black flags on the stolen American armor are on TV giving us the creeps 24/7. But the zealots aren’t really in our living room.
Forty years ago, Joseph Campbell the great humanist scholar and chronicler of the world’s myths, offered this wise description of the dilemma of our times of which ISIS is only the latest instance.
“Neitzche, nearly a century ago, already named our period the Age of Comparisons. There were formerly horizons within which people lived and thought and mythologized. There are now no more horizons. And with the dissolution of horizons we have experienced and are experiencing collisions, terrific collisions, not only of peoples but also of their mythologies. It is as when dividing panels are withdrawn from between chambers of very hot and very cold airs: there is a rush of these forces together. And so we are right now in an extremely perilous age of thunder, lightning and hurricanes all around. I think it is improper to become hysterical about it, projecting hatred and blame. It is an inevitable, altogether natural thing that when energies that have never met before come into collision — each bearing its own pride — there should be turbulence. This is just what we are experiencing; and we are riding it: riding it to a new age…”
We shouldn’t be complacent about the danger barbarity poses, but we shouldn’t let it monopolize our energies either. Our business is to create the new age and make it a better one, not to descend with ISIS into a new Dark Age.