There is no question that the Islamic State is a nasty piece of work, as he Brits used to say. Beheadings with rather paltry tools, no samurai swords or headsman’s axes for them. Burning alive. Killing the unarmed — women, children, cartoonists — in a very unsporting fashion.
Still, the rhetoric from some people on our side of the cultural gulf can raise an eyebrow. Gung-ho interventionist right-wingers like Lindsey Graham, John McCain and the neo-cons have joined sensitive, pacifist, liberals in denouncing ISIL/ISIS/IS as brutal, barbarous, savage, sadistic.
They certainly are, and boldly showy about it. Hitler, Stalin and other beasts tended to keep their barbarities offstage, but the point of terrorism is to create terror. Yet memories seem short about our own unpleasant actions. Shock and Awe? Abu Ghraib? Or perhaps shedding blood is only barbarous if done by people whose worldview, politics or religion we don’t share. Or if it’s done while TV is watching.
Still, what exactly was John McCain doing in a jet over Vietnam when he got shot down? Sightseeing or participating in an air campaign entailing bombing, strafing, the use of napalm and agent orange? We tend to forget that estimates of civilian deaths caused by the United States in Vietnam range from a low of 200,000 to double or triple that.
Are women and children incinerated or obliterated by bombing runs, drone strikes, missile attacks any less dead and maimed than the victims of ISIS? Not really. Technology just allows us to wage war from a greater distance with blood only on our hands metaphorically rather than literally.
I certainly don’t believe there is a moral equivalency between Western liberal rationalism and the wannabe caliphs of a reinvented medieval Islam, anymore than there was between abolitionist federalism and secessionist slave states 150 years ago. Some things are more worth fighting for than others, but that’s no excuse for deluding ourselves about the nature of war.
When the debating stops and the shooting starts, barbarism is never far behind — whether the conflict is prosecuted by technologically superior or stone age means. As William Tecumseh Sherman candidly admitted — “war is all hell…It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization.”
It should be avoided whenever possible and, if it can’t be avoided, won as swiftly and with as little loss to your side as possible. The values your side fights to preserve may be superior to those of the enemy, but the burning, shattering, shredding of combatants and innocent bystanders will be horrific no matter which side they are on.
That said, the theatrical ugliness of ISIS may not be the most alarming threat the West faces. Because they televise their acts of terror, they loom larger in our consciousness than they deserve. But they are so extreme that, like some virulent viruses, they may limit their own ability to thrive. Stealthier evil may be a bigger danger. Vladimir Putin comes to mind.
Admittedly his public persona is far from stealthy. Braggadocio is his style. Strutting such as his hasn’t been seen since Hitler in Paris. He also goes in for carefully stage-managed macho pursuits. Martial arts. Bare-chested horseback riding, shooting, nature treks. He’s the Cowboy Cossack. In many ways he is a throwback. He seems anxious to bring back the good old days of the Tsars with equality for none and empire building for the few.
He has been wildly popular thanks to the props to the economy provided by energy wealth and his demagogic skills. To many Russians Putin is the man who has given them back self-respect after the humiliating collapse of communism. He has built his career on ruthlessly suppressing uprisings against his reign at home and abroad. Victims include Chechnyans, dissidents, upstart oligarchs. He has also attempted to snatch back lost territory and subvert regimes unwilling to kowtow. Crimea, Ukraine and who knows what’s next.
It may be no coincidence that the epicenter of economic cybercrime aimed at the capitalist West seems to be Putin’s Russia. And his otherwise oppressive state has done little to stop it. Putin has also run a protection racket, using a chokehold on Western Europe’s oil lifeline to threaten any country presumptuous enough to challenge his actions.
That’s not all. On a recent “Left, Right and Center” podcast from KCRW, two Canadian panelists warned of another Putin plot. Chrystia Freeland, who has Ukrainian ancestors on her father’s side studied Russian history before becoming a financial journalist at Thomson-Reuters. Putin banned her from travel in Russia due to her reporting. She is now a member of Parliament for Toronto. David Frum, a naturalized American citizen became a neo-con speechwriter for George W. Bush (“the axis of evil” is his). He’s a chesty interventionist but is disenchanted with other strains in the Republican party, the tea party and evangelicals among them.
Both Freeland and Frum, strange bedfellows politically, agreed that Putin is using his oil billions to surreptitiously fund political parties in Western Europe. This Manchurian Candidate strategy often seeks to empower right-wing parties with isolationist, nativist, even neo-Nazi overtones.
The goal appears to be to cause gridlock and chaos in various parliaments. Russian money has been implicated in the rise of such parties in France, Spain, Greece and elsewhere. If a consensus against Putin’s territorial and economic crimes can be undermined by such electoral means he will have a freer hand.
In America, we live in an era when rich men are ambitious to buy elections in order to feather their nests and avoid regulation. In Europe, Putin is attempting to buy elections to do the same thing on a geopolitical scale. Will NATO mess with Putin, for example, if Putin’s puppets get a voice in two or three or four member governments? ISIS looks like a crazed person on a killing spree. Scary but self-limiting. Putin looks like a modern mob boss — patient, organized, cold-blooded and implacable with excellent PR and expensive suits. Pick your top worry.