Friday, November 20, 2015

The ISIS Terrorist Attack and the Mystery of Linear Time

Several times now I have mused that we need to think like grown-ups about the war on ISIS, both in terms of our military "response" and our refugee policy. I would like to address another element of that now. As tempers cool slightly, we've increasingly moved from the "when should we bomb?" question to the "what did ISIS want?" question. There's the usual rhetoric about them being nihilists who hate our freedoms. (This ridiculous backwash from the Globe & Mail editorial board for instance.)

Incidentally, today that same board announced that they viewed themselves as an important element in a propaganda offensive against ISIS. I seldom see newspaper editors overtly refer to themselves as propagandists. Props for honesty, I suppose. And then they close by repeating that ISIS is simply a sort of "death cult." They want to kill everyone. They're willing to die in the process. Kill! Kill! Kill them all! (Wait, is that the ISIS death cult or a Marine Corps training chant? I'm so confused...)

What irked me to write this, though, was speculation in more progressive outlets, like Crawford Kilian's thoughtful piece a few days ago in the Tyee and Canadian Dimension. The liberal counternarrative here is that ISIL's violence isn't just random or senseless and we must figure out their plan and not fulfill it. (To which the militarist right responds, who cares what their plan is: we can still -- to quote Donald Trump -- "just bomb the shit out of them.")

I think that the explanation here is rather simpler than anyone is willing to credit. Weirdly, Kilian for instance listed the five things he says we "know" about the attack without listing the one thing we do know with absolute dead certainty: we have been bombing ISIS for a year. We have been bombing the homeland of ISIS. We have attempted to kill, with bombs, ISIS people for a year.

Which is why it's preposterous and idiotic in the extreme to announce now that this is sort of mysterious and perhaps unprovoked attack by a death cult that just wants to kill everyone. ISIS attacked us -- specifically France -- because we attacked them. There may be additional elements of ISIS strategy involved here, but there is a very simple equation at the root of this.

How much more did ISIS think through this before doing it? Maybe a little. Maybe a lot. I have no idea. I have no idea what the command structure of ISIS is so I don't know who did any thinking at all, specifically. But historically governments do things all the time without seriously thinking through the likely effects of their actions. We don't seem to have a problem thinking of our own leaders as foolish, vain, short-sighted, and generally incapable of sound strategic thinking. ISIS could be the same way.

Now, I'm not saying it was okay for ISIS to kill civilians in Paris. Obviously it wasn't. It was murder. It was criminal. It was terrorism. And we would not expect our own troops to try to harm ISIS by going out and killing some civilians who were under ISIS's rule. But ISIS doesn't follow the same rules of war we do. From their perspective, civilians are legitimate military targets. They've quite clearly said as much.

So it's not right. It's not okay. It doesn't mean we shouldn't respond. It doesn't even mean that we should hesitate to respond militarily. But truth be told, if you want to know why ISIS attacked Paris, the reason is fairly obvious, and it has very little to do with ISIS being a crazed irrational death cult, on the one hand, or a masterful strategic manipulator of Western culture, on the other.

Inability to grasp concepts like linear time and cause-and-effect is usually a sign of an immature or diseased mind.

None of this would matter overly, I suppose, in the mind of a right-wing nutjob like a Globe editorial writer, because we're about to bomb ISIS into the Stone Age. But bombing large swathes of failed states into backwardness doesn't restore those states. It just helps lay the framework for the next radical group to arrive in the same place, hating the West just as passionately. We've been playing games in this region for a century, steadfastly refusing to accept that our own behaviour might have long-term consequences. It's time to grow up.

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