The Unthinkable of ISIS

Unthinkable, is it? Do you think?

For someone you know, a friend or colleague, to leave home—to flee the country and join up with ISIS? To join in the “killing fields,” as the New York Times so poetically called itWhy? We wonder—we stop and ask: why? 

But is it so unthinkable? 

For years, I studied the Middle East. I took classes on the intersection of politics and religion. Classes on Arab history, on US democracy promotion and even a few lessons in Arabic. I was fascinated by the most complicated of conflicts—and this one seemed the most complicated of all. Between 2004 and 2008—the years I attended college—the Middle East dominated national and international politics. And I wanted to know why. Not why things were the way they were—but why they couldn’t be different. 

But what I learned after all of those years of study was pretty simple. It’s not a difficult question, really. That’s the farce in all international politics. Perhaps, in all conflicts. We see those in different circumstances—because they stand on the other side of the world or the other side of the aisle—and we think of them as if they themselves are different. Different from us in some way: wiser or less wise. Shrewder or less shrewd. More determined. Or more apathetic. Or simply—of a different mind. But people are people everywhere.  

People are people everywhere. And the friends and colleagues and students leaving their homes—leaving their “private school” for Syria—they’re people, too. And their motivations are far from unthinkable. Why are they joining ISIS? 

Think of a Cult 

Cults can be attractive in their ideology, their beliefs and large-scale goals. Who wouldn’t want to remake the world? Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something bigger than themselves? To be privy to a secret? Who wouldn’t want to be special? 

Cults are attractive—but their fatal flaw is often the impossibility of their goals. To achieve anything of significance, you need to attract people of action. Pragmatic. Intelligent. Discerning. People who can transform words into action. But people of action are rarely attracted to causes that are impossible to fulfill. It’s not moral scruples or some sense of right and wrong that keep people of action away from most cults. They’re simply too pragmatic for impossible goals. 

ISIS has a grand ideology—that it is the fulfillment of Islamic prophecy. And though this may seem impossible to believe, and even more impossible to achieve, ISIS is inspiring devotion from people of action. Why? Because it has seen tactical victories. Think about it: 

The organization has gained territory. It’s gained a reputation. And it’s gained money—lots of money. Now, that’s not to say that the end goals are even remotely possible—but these tactical victories are appealing to the action-minded. These victories make the skeptic stop and think: “there’s something real to this.” ISIS appears more plausible. And plausible is all you need when it comes to ideology. Consider how many believe in the world’s religions—despite myriad logical and scientific impediments—simply because those they trust believe in it. If others believe it, it must at least be plausible, right? 

Media Legitimacy

Being hated or feared—even loathed—can be a badge of honor. A mark of legitimacy. If they hate you, you must be doing something right. The people on the ground are talking about you? The media is reporting on you? The President of the United States is denouncing you? To the would-be-recruit or the pragmatist, to the disaffected youth who believes in ISIS’s goals but might be unsure of its capabilities—media legitimacy is further proof: “ISIS is really doing something, here.” They’re challenging the most powerful people in the world, they’re making an impact, and in some cases, coming out on top. Is ISIS a cult? Not in the eyes of the media, the eyes of the President—and not in the eyes of the new recruit: “ISIS is a legitimate threat. Its goals might be, too.”

Jihadi Cool

Also—there’s an excitement in it. A “jihadi cool.” You’re an eighteen, nineteen year old kid. All your life has been private schools and public boredom. Video games and virtual connection. And now—now there’s a chance to be something more? To see something more? To bring about the fulfillment of thousand-year-old prophecy? I keep thinking back on the story of Steve Jobs recruiting John Sculley of Pepsi. “Do you want to make sugar water for the rest of your life,” Steve asked, “or do you want to change the world?” There’s a charisma to idealistic organizations, whatever the ideals. Can you imagine what an ISIS recruit faces? The decision put before them? Can you remember what it’s like to want to change the world? And really—truly—to live at a moment, in a time and place, when you could be a part of it? 

Smashing the Grey

The modern world is a world of complexity—of nuance. Aaron Sorkin once said that he’s not interested in the difference between good and evil—he’s interested in the difference between good and great. And that’s the direction we’re moving. Global commerce is a game of utilization and optimization—finding efficiencies. Forget about crushing the enemy; this world is about maximizing value. It’s no longer: I’m right, you’re wrong. It’s: you’re right, but have you also considered this? Now, a world of grey can be interesting in a walk-and-talk kind of way. If you’re Aaron Sorkin, you can even make it dramatic. But the heart longs for stark distinctions, for black and white. For the epic sweep of righteous action. Sport, politics—the world’s religions—they’re all built on it. Dramatic movements like ISIS work likewise; a vehicle for breaking through the malaise of modern equivocations. A hammer for smashing the grey.  

Significant Action 

The question isn't—why is ISIS successful?  ISIS is only symptomatic of a global society that is uneasy with the modern world.  There are many reasons for this uneasiness—and most of them are legitimate.  Where does one find work?  Steady work?  Meaningful work?  Where does one find value in this modern world?  Where dignity?  And purpose?  These are all open questions.  Questions that need to be answered in more than just words. Questions that need to be answered in action. If those in power, if leaders of the modern world fail to serve this need, to empower people in significant action, people will find it elsewhere. It’s the most natural of all human needs—the need to live a significant life. Past generations struggled for bread, or for religious freedom, for political liberty or against the shackles of slavery. What does this modern generation struggle for? To what ultimate goal?  Every time the modern world fails to make a life significant, to empower significant action, it opens the door to risk.  Risk of being outmatched, outgunned, or simply—out-recruited.  

People want a cause to live for—and living alone isn’t a cause. It’s a reason to fight for something more. Something meaningful. Even if that meaning puts life itself at risk. 

Unthinkable? No. 


Freedom, Security, and Charlie

Does preventing the next attack mean sacrificing the values that Charlie Hebdo stood for? 

Word today that Great Britain’s David Cameron is targeting certain social networks that encrypt their data.  This is all well and good, Cameron says, but it’s no good when there’s a legitimate threat—a warrant that must be served.  What happens if there’s a terrorist attack—another Charlie Hebdo shooting—and law enforcement needs access to these networks?  These networks need to open their doors—or close down completely, he seems to say.  

John Gruber shook his head at the comment; and pasted in a well-worn quote:

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

-Ben Franklin

I tend to agree with the sentiment—in fact, I myself have used the quote in the past.  But I regret it now.  I regret it because Benjamin Franklin is simply dead wrong.  Think about it: our entire world is built on giving up a little bit of freedom to gain security.  We submit to delays at the airport for security.  We submit to wearing restraints and seat-belts in our cars for security.  We sell the freedom of our hours for the economic security of a wage.  Constantly, we give up freedom in order to gain security.  

At the same time, we also find ourselves giving up security in order to gain freedom.  Yes, we restrain our freedom with a seatbelt in order to be more secure—but we also threaten our personal safety and security in order to enjoy the freedom of the open road.  Each time we get into a vehicle we are putting our lives at risk.  Last year, about 30,000 people died in car accidents—and far more were wounded.  But we’ve decided that giving up the security and safety of the pedestrian is worth the freedom that mobility provides.  

Freedom and security is in constant balance—it’s a line we walk every single day.  To suggest that making a choice one way or another—in either direction—is scorn-worthy is a farce.  There is no store of finite freedom that each of us holds, untrammeled and virgin until we sell it for some measure of security.  We have to make a choice.  We live in society. Like wind we are blown by the movements of others, we find ourselves hanging as if on a swing—twisting and turning by the gusts of public opinion.  To to try to right ourselves in this storm of sentiment, we must push against one side or the other.  Not to choose is to choose to spin, turning and turning in the gale.  

Sometimes, we will push against freedom; others, against security.  But in the end, it’s a balance.  And one that we should exercise our minds in asserting.  Because it’s never as either/or as the partisans will have you believe.  When security breaks down, when law and order is broken, everyone’s freedom is at risk.  And when freedom is threatened, as we’ve seen in Ferguson and New York, riots and retaliations threaten security.  Just think of a room.  Freedom is everything you do in the room; and security is the walls of the room.  You need walls in a room to create the space and protect it against the elements.  But if you make that security too tight, if you bring those walls too close together, the room disappears and there’s no space to live, no space to move, or even breath. 

I don’t agree with David Cameron in his argument against social media.  I don't think that the freedom to communicate is worth compromising just to gain a bit more security in this case.  Why?  Because there are other ways to defend ourselves.  Because communication is too important to what we’re doing in this room.  But I’m not going to suggest that David Cameron is unworthy of freedom or security for having a different opinion.  Freedom isn’t inviolable; security isn’t primary.  Our society, and our future, depend on both.  Let’s discuss and debate both.  Because that’s what we all deserve. 

North by North Korea

There was a sense of outrage about it...

Outrage that these women had been victims of a hack—a breach of privacy.  Just a few weeks ago we were all talking about it: “the celebrity nudes."  A horde of pictures that hackers had somehow foisted their hands on—private photos taken by individuals in the privacy of their own homes.  Targeted by hackers because these individuals were celebrities.

The breach echoed around the Internet.  We heard from security researchers.  We heard from technology bloggers.  Was Apple to blame?  Were all of our pictures at risk?  Should I change my password?  Should I go through the complicated handshake of enabling two-factor authentication?  Should I heed the warning of moralizing morons who suggest that I not do or say or even so much as think anything I don’t want going public?  

But finally, the story settled around us and our reaction.  There were those on the Internet who looked at the photos.  There were those on the Internet who refused to look at the photos.  And then there were the victims: "how dare you,” they said.  And they were right.  We all knew they were right.  How dare you look.  Respectable news publications refused to print the celebrity photos.  It wasn’t a hard decision to make: nude photos aren’t usually printed.  But it was a decision and it felt like the right one.  

Flash forward a few weeks and we find another hack.  This one larger—but no less private.  Here are the private emails, the private email addresses—the private thoughts and statements of celebrities.  Everything, that is, except their privates.  And suddenly: it’s fair game.  Everyone is looking.  Everyone is printing.  Nobody—or at least, very few of the victims are standing up to say: “how dare you.”  Respectable news publications even defend their actions: the breach of privacy isn’t a breach of privacy, they say: it’s a leak.  Leaks are important.  Leaks are in the public interest.  

The story once again ricochets from topic to topic: is Hollywood racist?  Are women underpaid?  Is Scott Rudin an asshole?  The tech crowd speculates on the hackers and their “demands” that a new film on Kim Jong-un be scrapped.  Are they linked to North Korea?  Yes?  No?  Maybe?  Who cares: Angelina Jolie was called a brat by a movie producer.  Breaking news!  

Today, we learn it was North Korea.  We learn that theaters are refusing to show the film.  We learn that Sony is caving to these rogue demands—the film will be canceled.  And now—just as before—the story is shifting back to us.  How are we reacting?  Should we really cave to terrorist demands?  Don’t we believe in freedom and democracy and standing our ground?  Is this what it means to be an American?  

And yet—before we caved to those demands, before this story was about America’s eminence, before—even—the funny PPTs spilled across the Internet, somebody’s privacy was violated.  Lots of somebodies, in fact—and like gleeful little second graders, we squealed with laughter at the victims of a crime.  I’m not saying that right now—as Sony pulls the film—we shouldn’t be asking ourselves what it means to be an American.  All I’m saying is: why weren’t we asking ourselves that when the story started?  Why weren’t we treating this breach of privacy—this crime, this terrorist attack—with the same respect and moral certitude that we applied to the photo hack?  

This is the beginning of a new era of hacking.  Hacking to fulfill every political, social, and personal aim you can think of—from the basest to the most ideal.  And we’re going to see a lot more of it: technology is simply moving too fast to keep intruders out.  So they’re going to get in; they’re going to get their hands on what they want—but whether they get what they want will depend in large part on us.  On how we react.  

It won’t always be easy—it won’t always be a clear-cut decision: with the Pentagon Papers on one side and celebrity nudes on the other.  But in the future, as we get better at this, my hope is that we realize every hack is a test.  It’s a test not of our security systems or our forensics teams or our national security policy: it’s just a test of us.  Who do we want to be?  The squealing second grader, gleefully poring over stolen goods?  Or a more mature citizen of society—someone who recognizes that there’s a victim’s world at stake here.  Even if the victim is a brat.  Even if the victim is an asshole movie producer—they deserve better from us.  We deserve better from ourselves.