Street Corner Soapbox: America's New Two Minutes Hate
The media's coverage of ISIS and what it means to our notion of "terror"
Here's how government officials are talking about ISIS – the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," the militant group that recently took over a swath of territory in northern Iraq.
ISIS is an "imminent threat to every interest we have," according to U.S. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel. "This is beyond anything that we've seen."
"This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated," said Joint Chiefs of Staff chair, General Martin Dempsey. Dempsey warned that ISIS wanted to absorb Jordan, Syria, and Israel into its "caliphate." "If it were to achieve that vision," said Dempsey, it would "create a security environment that would threaten us in many ways."
Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham penned in a New York Times op-ed that ISIS is "the world's most sinister terrorist army" and that "it must be confronted." Rear admiral John Kirby told the press that the government wasn't ignoring the group's "global aspirations." President Obama called the group "a cancer."
The media, too, has pitched in, repeatedly publishing video and images of the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley by masked ISIS members. Newspapers talk of the "war on ISIS." Bloggers and cable news networks report on ISIS plots to kill the Pope and attack a Carlsberg beer brewery. "Saudi king warns jihadists could attack U.S.," proclaims one Fox News headline; "ISIS crisis: Will next terror attack on American soil come from a British jihadist?" reads another. ISIS is massacring dissidents. ISIS is killing Christians. ISIS is beheading children.
Look familiar? It should to anyone who has lived through our recent war-making in the Middle East. It's our "Two Minutes Hate" – from George Orwell's 1984 – the short, televised programs intended to inflame citizens of a state perpetually at war by showing them exaggerated images of their "enemies." "The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part," wrote Orwell, "but that it was impossible to avoid joining in."
Ever since 9/11, in fact, we've been subjected to blaring propaganda campaigns against one regional group after another. The Taliban beat girls for attending school. Saddam Hussein stockedpiled chemical weapons and aided al Qaeda. The Iraqi insurgent suicide bombers. Iran's nuclear bomb. The Syrian government gassing its own people.
Many news reports are accurate. The Taliban did forbid education for girls and women, for example, and enforced that ban through brutal tactics. But the images and causes end as soon as our military targets shift. Do you think girls and women now have ready access to education in Afghanistan? Has Bashar al-Assad stopped kidnapping and torturing children? Has Iran abandoned its nuclear program?
And, of course, like everything in the Middle East, ISIS is more complicated than how it's portrayed by the mainstream media.
Comprised mainly of Sunni, former Baathist leaders – the political party of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein – ISIS is an insurgent group looking to gain territory in Iraq. It's likely its Islamic extremist rhetoric and identity is manufactured to attract foreign fighters. ISIS' roots stem from the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. The leaders of ISIS today were turned away from participating in Iraq's new government because of their ties to the former regime. They turned to war to oppose the U.S. occupation and the increasing marginalization of Sunnis in Iraq. Their gains, too, aren't merely a result of terror and will. After all, ISIS is a relatively small group compared to, say, the Iraqi army. But they have support from the Sunni population in the north.
To understand why Sunnis would support a violent terror group like ISIS, you have to understand Iraqi internal politics and the prime ministry of Nouri al-Maliki and his campaign to consolidate federal power in the hands of Iraqi's Shia population – a campaign that saw the disqualification of Sunni political candidates from elections and the arrest of sitting Sunni government leaders, as well as the arrests and beatings by Iraqi Shia-dominated police and military of Sunnis, all of which culminated in the violent government crackdown of a Sunni protest camp in Ramadi.
ISIS, despite their atrocities, may be the popular alternative in northern Iraq to the country's federal government. And ISIS probably isn't the international terror threat Fox News makes it out to be.
And then there's ISIS' role in the tangled insurgency in Syria, where rival groups are just as bad as ISIS and our best possible ally in that theater may be Syria's brutal dictator, whose campaign of terror against his own people make ISIS look like choir boys. Or Shia-dominated Iran, which also has strong interest in preserving Iraqi's federal government and opposing ISIS. Even Foley's death at the hands of ISIS is more complicated when you consider more than 100 journalists have been killed in Syria since the civil war started in the winter of 2011-12, as well as more than 70,000 civilians. It's an ugly, dangerous region, and ISIS is hardly the first or only group who has murdered a reporter.
Why do we single out ISIS then? Why are some banging the drum for war when there are no good choices, no good outcome from any U.S. intervention?
Congressional Republicans saw in ISIS' capture of Mosul and Falluja a chance to attack President Obama over the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, as well as to re-imagine the Republican-led invasion and occupation of Iraq into something positive. In response, the Obama administration upped its rhetoric, likely so as not to appear "weak" on foreign policy issues. The press responded by upping its lurid coverage of ISIS to prepare the rest of us for more U.S. bombs and money heading to the Middle East. Or maybe it's about the oil.
And so, our Two Minutes of Hate.
Here's the thing: ISIS might actually be a threat. But thanks to the endless propaganda campaigns to get us to flush trillions of dollars and nearly 6,000 of our men and women down the bottomless hole of Iraq and Afghanistan – and all to only make the region less stable – it's hard for us to separate fact from fiction any more.
What I do know is that there are bigger threats in the States. Police kill two black men a week in American cities. Car accidents kill over 500 each week. An MIT study revealed domestic air pollution kills 200,000 Americans a year. Global warming threatens our economy, way of life. Only these problems can't be bombed.
Our best option in northern Iraq may be to do nothing. War is not peace.
Jay Stevens can be contacted at Jay@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @Snevets_Yaj.