By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
During the last week, America has been paying an inordinate amount of attention to world events. On Friday night, terrorist attacks in Paris killed over 100 people. After the attacks, Americans started to (finally) pay some attention to Syria, where a Civil War has ripped the nation apart, giving opportunities to groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) to find a territorial foothold. Unfortunately, most US citizens ignored Syria and the instability of the region until the day ISIS began targeting areas outside the immediate region. Hence, a bomb going off in a marketplace in Beirut on Thursday passed through the 24 hour news cycle with nary a whisper, while the attack in Paris was front-page news with fully invested in-depth reporting.
For the most part, Americans have no idea what ISIS is, or what they want. Their story is too complex for most Americans to follow, and, to be quite frank, most US citizens just don’t care to follow foreign affairs. The majority of the nation concern themselves with sports, video games and the lives of celebrities, and don’t worry about the world outside their immediate selfie-bubble. The one thing Americans do seem to know though, is that ISIS is made up of some pretty bad guys. Whether it be beheading those identified as heathen apostates in Syria, or shooting civilians randomly with automatic weapons in Paris, ISIS fulfills the Hollywood villain role quite nicely. Of course, for most Americans, when this is happening ‘over there’, we can simply shake our heads and declare such actions monstrous, evil or devilish, and turn the channel. ISIS is not sticking ‘over there’ though. As Americans feel it hitting closer to home, our rhetoric of fear and aggression has intensified .
Evil. I never like to use that term. Strangely enough, it is too comforting of a word. Labeling something or someone evil simplifies complexities. It glosses over reality. If our enemies are evil, then we are good. If they are
evil, then they easily explained. If they are evil, all we need to do is kill’em and the world will all go back to normal. In President Obama’s press conference the other day, a CNN reporter spoke for all those who want to live in such a simplistic Manichean world. Jim Acosta stood up and asked the President, why can’t we ‘just take out these bastards’? It is a simple question, and it is begging for a simple answer. The problem is, the situation at hand is not simple. Hard problems often call for difficult, ugly, complex, time consuming and unpopular solutions.
With this in mind, I would hope Jim Acosta, and all those he speaks for would take 10 minutes and read an analysis of the problem by one of the world’s experts on the psychology of terrorists. Anthropologist Scott
Atran has written numerous books on how we should understand terrorists, and how we can hope to defeat the social challenges that give rise to terrorist movements. A couple days after the Paris attacks, he published an important article in the New York Review of Books that should be required reading for all American policymakers. To me, this is the most clear explanation of what ISIS is, what they want, and why they seem to be so popular with young people around the world. I highly recommend you read it. I will attach it below.
If you are interested in more, here is Atran speaking to the United Nations earlier this year.
Atran at the UN