“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” — Voltaire
Years before Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden, this column argued that al-Qaida was capable of "theatrical acts of mass murder," but was not a military threat to the United States.
The phrase infuriated some readers. Back then tough guys talked about fighting "Islamofascism," supposedly a totalitarian ideology linking bitter enemies such as Iran and al-Qaida (but never Saudi Arabia, where the oil and money are, and where almost all the 9/11 conspirators originated) in an alliance to destroy Western Civilization.
Nobody says that anymore.
My point was simple. Fascism was a poor analogy. Pundits' Churchillian fantasies aside, I wrote, what made Nazism "uniquely dangerous wasn't merely Hitler's hypnotic ideology. It was German militarism and hyper-nationalism run amok. Islamic extremists control none of the world's 60-odd Muslim-majority nations. They have no army, air force or navy. They pose no military threat to the integrity of the United States or any Western nation."
Nor does ISIS, al-Qaida's more flamboyant and equally murderous rival. Last week's appalling atrocities in Paris, Beirut and Egypt underscored that reality in the bloodiest possible way. Almost everybody anticipates similar attacks in the United States. We must pray that they fail. However, as President Obama has said, a terrorist willing to die can murder innocents in restaurants as easily as Connecticut schoolchildren.
Yet for all the fury and despair these attacks have evoked — I think of a little Parisian girl named Charlotte and her family — ISIS cannot and will not prevail. It's less a political movement than an apocalyptic death cult, and definitely not an existential threat to the United States, France or Russia.
Sane leaders would know better than to antagonize three of the world's most powerful military establishments at once.
ISIS's self-anointed "Caliph," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is not that kind of leader. Think David Koresh or Jim Jones with a militia and a Koran instead of a Bible. Theologically, ISIS is to Islam as the Ku Klux Klan is to Christianity, i.e. a crackpot, deviant sect. But much crazier.
Madness, however, has never prevented cult leaders from gaining an enraptured following. If anything, the converse appears true.
It's a fact of life Orwell recognized in a 1940 review of Hitler's "Mein Kampf": "Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people 'I offer you a good time,' Hitler has said to them, 'I offer you struggle, danger, and death,' and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet."
Writing in "The Atlantic," Graeme Wood explains ISIS's hypnotic appeal to dispossessed and humiliated young men:
"During the last years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Islamic State's immediate founding fathers ... saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdi — a messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world ... For certain true believers — the kind who long for epic good-versus-evil battles — visions of apocalyptic bloodbaths fulfill a deep psychological need."
It almost goes without saying that you can't make treaties with such people. They can only be defeated.
The question is how? And at what cost?
Confronted with a newly belligerent press corps in Turkey recently, President Obama spoke mockingly about actions that would "somehow in the abstract make America look tough or make me look tough."
"When you listen to what (GOP candidates) actually have to say, what they're proposing, most of the time when pressed they describe things that we're already doing. Maybe they're not aware that we're already doing them. Some of them seem to think that if I were just more bellicose in expressing what we're doing, that that would make a difference, because that seems to be the only thing that they're doing, is talking as if they're tough."
Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum went down the list of the GOP candidates' suggestions, but found nothing new:
"There's a lot we can do to defeat ISIS, and most of it we're already doing. Airstrikes? Check. Broad coalition? Check. Working with Arab allies? Check. Engage with Sunni tribal leaders? Check. Embed with the Iraqi military? Check. There's more we could do, but often it's contradictory. You want to arm the Kurds and create a partnership with the Iraqi government? Good luck. You want to defeat Assad and ISIS? You better pick one. You want to avoid a large American ground force and you want to win the war fast? Not gonna happen."
Yes, Obama's "red line" in Syria was a strategic blunder; his "junior varsity" remark was cocky and ill-advised. Also, Vladimir Putin's right: The Assad government's bad, but ISIS is far worse.
However, ISIS has turned to terror because it's gradually losing the ground war, and the Caliphate is shrinking.
La belle France is not.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.