Feature

How pathetic is ISIS?

Very pathetic — despite what you hear from the howling ideologues on America's right wing

ISIS has gruesomely beheaded yet another Westerner — this time, British aid worker Alan Henning. When I heard, my first reaction, as always, was to be furious at the group's barbarism. But about two seconds later, something else popped into my head: Boy, these ISIS guys sure are a bunch of pathetic losers.

That is not to minimize the horrific violence inherent in the act of beheading, or the terrible tragedy this is for Henning's friends and family. But think about the bigger picture: The United States is firing hundreds of hugely expensive, technologically sophisticated missiles at ISIS from positions of complete safety. And how does the group respond? By sending some dude in a cheap Halloween costume out onto a rocky hillside to manually slice the head off of an innocent man who came to Syria to help people in need.

That's the best they've got?

We've gone from facing down Hitler's Germany, Imperial Japan, and Stalin's Soviet Union to feeling provoked by a ragtag bunch of lunatics who can only manage to hurt us one person at a time with a butcher's knife? You've got to be kidding.

After the September 11 attacks, lots of analysts fastened onto the fact that the hijackers accomplished their goals with weapons no more sophisticated than box cutters. Everyone at the time interpreted this as uniquely frightening, because it demonstrated our vulnerability: Look at how much death and destruction could be sown with minimal weaponry and the will to inflict maximal harm.

Thirteen years later, things look a little different.

Terrorism is a form of asymmetrical warfare, usually deployed by a weaker power against a stronger one. That describes September 11 perfectly. But since then? There hasn't been a single follow-up hijacking, and no bombs have been detonated on American soil. There have been a handful of attempted attacks in public places, but none has been successful. Unless you're going to count that guy who set his shoe on fire on a trans-Atlantic fight — an act that accomplished nothing more harmful than getting the TSA to require air travelers to remove their shoes at airport security checkpoints forevermore. That's a pain in the ass but hardly a deathly blow against American global hegemony or whatever it is that Islamic terrorists think they're fighting for.

And that, my friends, is pathetic. It can't even be described as asymmetrical warfare. It's more like total-fail warfare.

Now, this doesn't mean that President Obama is wrong to use military force to keep ISIS from carving out an actual state from the ruins of Syria and Iraq. If these pathetic lunatics were successful, they might use such a state as a platform from which to launch terrorist attacks against the United States, much as Osama bin Laden used Afghanistan to plan and prosecute the bombings that led up to and included September 11. I'm skeptical that ISIS would be able to get its act together enough to run an actual state, just as I doubt our air campaign will accomplish much beyond temporarily stalling the group's rampage across Mesopotamia. Still, the instinct to do what we can militarily, and within reason, to forestall the founding of a genuine Islamic State isn't obviously ridiculous.

But you know what is obviously ridiculous? The reaction of the American right to the president's latter-day hawkishness — for being insufficiently unhinged and hysterical.

Because I don't live my life in the right-wing echo chamber, I wasn't fully aware of how Obama's ISIS policy was being received by the conservative movement's media complex. Since its profits depend on demonizing Democrats, I figured there'd be criticism — though I also assumed it would be somewhat measured, since Obama had unquestioningly come around to a position much closer to what the right would prefer.

But then I began to do some research for this column by typing into Google the search terms "ISIS" and "pathetic." The results? Bill Kristol saying Obama's reaction to ISIS is pathetic. Chuck Norris calling Obama's policy against the group pathetic. Red State pronouncing on Obama's weak and pathetic speech defending our military response to ISIS. On and on and on: Mark Levin, Ralph Peters, Jeanine Pirro — all of them and many more calling the president pathetic for merely deploying American air power (and not thousands of ground troops? not thermonuclear weapons?) against the pissant thugs of ISIS.

What a strange time in American history — when media-amplified ideologues who like to portray themselves as exemplars of unwavering confidence and courage end up staking out positions motivated primarily by cowardice. The United States possesses the most powerful military in the world by far, and yet a few thousand knife-wielding hooligans tooling around a desert 6,000 miles away from the nation's borders are enough to send these swaggering tough guys into a tizzy?

In the opening lines of the New York Times Magazine's remarkable feature on Marilynne Robinson from this past Sunday, the 70-year-old novelist remarks that "fear has, in this moment, a respectability I've never seen in my life."

Precisely.

It's always hard to know whether the right's professional demagogues really believe what they're saying — or if, instead, they're just stoking public fear and paranoia to gin up ratings. But either way, there seem to be an awful lot of people in the U.S. today who consider it a mark of moral seriousness and strength — as opposed to a sign of free-floating anxiety and misplaced panic — to treat a minor nuisance like ISIS as if it were existential threat.

Fear has its place, and it's sometimes called for. But it can also badly distort one's judgment.

And it's never something to be proud of.

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