We fire missiles from the sky that incinerate families huddled in their houses. They incinerate a pilot cowering in a cage. We torture hostages in our black sites and choke them to death by stuffing rags down their throats. They torture hostages in squalid hovels and behead them. We organize Shiite death squads to kill Sunnis. They organize Sunni death squads to kill Shiites. We produce high-budget films such as “American Sniper” to glorify our war crimes. They produce inspirational videos to glorify their twisted version of jihad.
The barbarism we condemn is the barbarism we commit. The line that separates us from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is technological, not moral. We are those we fight.
“From violence, only violence is born,” Primo Levi wrote, “following a pendular action that, as time goes by, rather than dying down, becomes more frenzied.”
The burning of the pilot, Jordanian Lt. Muath Al-Kaseasbeh, by ISIS militants after his F-16 crashed near Raqqa, Syria, was as gruesome as anything devised for the Roman amphitheater. And it was meant to be. Death is the primary spectacle of war. If ISIS had fighter jets, missiles, drones and heavy artillery to bomb American cities there would be no need to light a captured pilot on fire; ISIS would be able to burn human beings, as we do, from several thousand feet up. But since ISIS is limited in its capacity for war it must broadcast to the world a miniature version of what we do to people in the Middle East. The ISIS process is cruder. The result is the same.
Terror is choreographed. Remember “Shock and Awe”? Terror must be seen and felt to be effective. Terror demands gruesome images. Terror must instill a paralyzing fear. Terror requires the agony of families. It requires mutilated corpses. It requires anguished appeals from helpless hostages and prisoners. Terror is a message sent back and forth in the twisted dialogue of war. Terror creates a whirlwind of rage, horror, shame, pain, disgust, pity, frustration and impotence. It consumes civilians and combatants. It elevates violence as the highest virtue, justified in the name of noble ideals. It unleashes a carnival of death and plunges a society into blood-drenched madness.
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