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An Apocalyptic Death Cult Has Its Limits

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An Apocalyptic Death Cult Has Its Limits


“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Years before Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden, this column argued that al Qaeda 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 Qaeda (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 any more.

My point was simple. Fascism was a poor analogy. Pundits’ Churchillian fantasies aside, 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 Qaeda’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 in Connecticut classrooms.

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, by which I mean they’re a crackpot, deviant sect. But they’re even crazier than that.

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 taking action 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,” the president said, “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.

Image taken from Islamic State video footage shows a man identified in the subtitiles as Al Karar the Iraqi gesturing as he speaks

Gene Lyons

Gene Lyons is a political columnist and author. Lyons writes a column for the Arkansas Times that is nationally syndicated by United Media. He was previously a general editor at Newsweek as wells an associate editor at Texas Monthly where he won a National Magazine Award in 1980. He contributes to Salon.com and has written for such magazines as Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, Entertainment Weekly, Washington Monthly, The Nation, Esquire, and Slate. A graduate of Rutgers University with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia, Lyons taught at the Universities of Massachusetts, Arkansas and Texas before becoming a full-time writer in 1976. A native of New Jersey, Lyons has lived in Arkansas with his wife Diane since 1972. The Lyons live on a cattle farm near Houston, Ark., with a half-dozen dogs, several cats, three horses, and a growing herd of Fleckvieh Simmental cows. Lyons has written several books including The Higher Illiteracy (University of Arkansas, 1988), Widow's Web (Simon & Schuster, 1993), Fools for Scandal (Franklin Square, 1996) as well as The Hunting Of The President: The 10 Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, which he co-authored with National Memo Editor-in-Chief Joe Conason.

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  1. Dominick Vila November 18, 2015

    The last acts of terror by ISIS, the bombing of a Russian passenger airliner and the killings in Paris, may turn out to be the end of that medieval terrorist group. In the interim, Russian. French and American bombings of ISIS targets has increased exponentially. Most interestingly, French President Hollande plans to meet with Presidents Obama and Putin next week, ostensibly, to finalize plans on how to end the existence of ISIS. Considering past experiences, I would not be surprised if the likely defeat of ISIS as a physical institution does not translate into an end of terrorism. As long as Westerner interests, and our presence in countries where we are not welcomed, continues terrorism will remain a way of life, and counter terrorism will continue to be a requirement to achieve a modicum of safety.

    1. Buford2k11 November 18, 2015

      yes, yes, yes, what is the end game? what are the “goals” of the bombing, shooting, and destruction of the death cult? Terror of the foreign kind can be kept at arms length, on the most part…it is the domestic side of terror that is more of a threat to us than any other group…and we have our own “death cults”….

    2. itsfun November 18, 2015

      Dom: You make a lot of good points here. First we must completely destroy ISIS. Just imagine what would happen if they were to get a nuclear weapon. After that happens, we do need to respect other cultures, instead of trying to make them clones of the United States. We must act now or be prepared for a worse day than 9/11. Our government leaders must not draw red lines, call them JV players and such. These murderers must be completely taken out of action.

    3. Insinnergy November 18, 2015

      The sad thing is that a lot of the fighting/bombing that needs to be done will be in suburban areas (One of the key reasons not to go into Syria as well)… which means many civilian casualties. These a$$holes will hide among the populace.

  2. bcarreiro November 18, 2015

    We are the World.

  3. Bosda November 18, 2015

    However, ISIS has turned to terror because it’s gradually losing the ground war, and the Caliphate is shrinking.

    You’re not allowed to say that, in The Atlantic!
    You’re not allowed to talk about a Military Victory.
    You are only allowed to be negative–to speak of failure, loss, defeat, and make ill-evidenced accusations of atrocity.

    I try not to sound Conservative, because I see myself as Progressive, on social issues.

    But really….

    Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst.

    Nations and peoples who forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.~~Robert Heinlein

    1. Paul Bass November 18, 2015

      Um, you are quoting a science FICTION author, so no real political expertise.

      Violence only settles issues AFTER diplomacy fails. The contrary opinion, diplomacy, OBVIOUSLY works more often than violence, we the world, have not had a major world war for 70 years, so no, you are wrong.

      Violence, as an individual or a nation, is the last refuge of the incompetent.

      1. Bosda November 18, 2015

        I am quoting Heinlein, who was also the author of How To Be A Politician/Take Back Your Government, I am quoting Heinlein, the former Naval Officer, I am quoting Heinlein, the author of multiple Philosophical Novels, I am quoting Heinlein, who received multiple Nobel nominations for Stranger In A Strange Land.

        The fact that you are uninformed, almost illiterate, about an academically accepted genre of literature, does not excuse your condescension.

        And nothing in your statement has any bearing on the truth or falsehood of Heinlein’s observation.

        1. Paul Bass November 18, 2015

          YEs, I agree with all that about Heinlein, I’ve read him extensively, BUT he WAS NOT A POLITICIAN!!!

          Yes, it is a wonderful academically accepted genre of literature, BUT HE WAS STILL NOT A POLITICIAN!

          To affect the political process of most nations you have to be a politician. Heinlein was not. He may or may not have valid opinions, but he DID NOT ACT on those opinions in a political sense.

          And in fact, in acknowledging to your expertise, the quote i paraphrased is often attributed to Isaac Asimov “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent”. I thought being a sci-fi buff you might catch that.

          So, yes, you are right about Heinlein, but no, diplomacy is ALWAYS the preferred answer rather than violence. Thank You.

          1. Bosda November 18, 2015

            No, he was a Political & Military Philosopher, who published his works as novels, an accepted practice. And he was indded active in politics, as a activist.

          2. Paul Bass November 18, 2015

            Yea, right, there with MLK on the Selma bridge?

            It doesn’t make ANY difference, he DID NOT affect American policy. (except maybe in some GOP fever dream of american military domination).

          3. Bosda November 18, 2015

            Actually, his books on Military Philosophy had a major impact on post-Vietnam Us Military thinking, which led him to be the speaker at the US Naval Academy Commencement, in 73. Chosen over Admirals & Congressmen, I”d add.


            And pray tell, why do you bring MLK into the matter?
            Dr King, while important, is not the only person of ideas ever to walk the Earth.

        2. Paul Bass November 18, 2015

          BTW it was the HUGO award, the Science Fiction equivalence of the Oscars, that Heinlein won for “Stranger in a Strange Land” . Thank you.

          1. Bosda November 18, 2015

            And you point is?
            The Hugo & the Nobel nominations are not mutually exclusive.

          2. Paul Bass November 18, 2015

            He never receive a Nobel nomination nor prize. NOTHING to do with Nobel.

            His Prize was a Hugo award in 1962 for “stranger in a Strange land” and in 1967 for “the moon is a harsh mistress”.

            Hugo = Sci Fi Writer Award vs. Nobel, prizes for great accomplishments in physics, medicine, world peace, etc., NOT the same thing.

          3. Bosda November 18, 2015

            He received multiple nominations for the Nobel.

            I never said he won the prize.

            And yes, he won a Hugo.

            Now, calm yourself.

            How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.~~Marcus Aurelius

    2. TheSkalawag929 November 18, 2015

      ” Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, ”
      Is this because violence is our first response?

      1. Bosda November 18, 2015

        Because it is very often the final response.

        1. TheSkalawag929 November 18, 2015

          What are you saying no to?
          According to what I have observed violence has been the preferred response over others that have been available. Which leads me to conclude that “…the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst.” is true only because it is the least tactic employed to settle disputes.

          1. Bosda November 18, 2015

            Because once violence begins, talk alone becomes powerless.
            Once one’s opponent decides on violence, Gandhi notwithstanding, talk and violence must both be used.

            Fight the person harming you, or fail and die.

          2. TheSkalawag929 November 18, 2015

            You point to an example of a response other than violence then discard it for what appears to me to be YOUR preferred response (violence).
            You could have also used Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, any of the people that participated in the non-violent civil rights demonstrations or Jesus as alternatives but YOUR first choice appears to be to perpetuate that which you claim your are against (violence).

          3. Bosda November 19, 2015

            Why do you assume I prefer it?
            I do not.
            I assert that it is the predominant way of settling things for long eras, and ignoring that fact is brainless.

          4. TheSkalawag929 November 19, 2015

            I overlooked that you did suggest talk as well as violence.
            I apologize.

            I prefer the word force (A force is a push or pull upon an object resulting from the object’s interaction with another object.) as opposed to violence (behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.)

  4. browninghipower November 18, 2015

    A sane voice in a wild west wilderness of shrieking. Thanks Gene. My only question is why we won’t arm the Kurds. They seem to be the only ones willing to take the fight directly to ISIS. Why are they shunned?

    1. johninPCFL November 18, 2015

      Maybe because their main aim won’t be destroying ISIS, it will be lopping off the end of Turkey to make a Kurdish homeland.

      1. browninghipower November 18, 2015

        And this would be bad, how? They’ve been wanting their own homeland for quite awhile.

        1. tomtype November 18, 2015

          But Turkey doesn’t want to give up any land. Neither does Iraq, Syria, Armenia, Iran, even a few in the Russian Caucauses. It is really hard when you straddle some of the most crucial borders in the world, to make your own state out of bits of so many other states.

          1. Insinnergy November 18, 2015

            At least the “borders” are now fairly fluid. Maybe there’s going to be some geographical changes. I’m sure it’ll be messy either way.

    2. FireBaron November 18, 2015

      We have been arming the Peshmurga (Kurdish militia) and providing embedded special forces troops. They are the ones fighting to rid Iraq of ISIL, not the useless government in Baghdad that can barely find their posteriors with both hands, a flashlight and a road map,

      1. browninghipower November 18, 2015

        My bad…thanks for the correction.

    3. tomtype November 18, 2015

      First the Kurds are everybody’s favorite group to hate in the Middle East. Second, Turkey is worried that any Kurdish state will become a rallying point for the Kurds that make up a majority in the eastern half of thier country . And the Turks go to great lengths to even deny that Kurds exist. Syria has some, and they don’t want them exposed to the idea of joining their own state. Actually the Kurds are the largest minority in the world without their own state. A state that they have been trying to create since WW1.

    4. Insinnergy November 18, 2015

      This explained it to me… at least in terms of how hard it is to work out who to support:

  5. latebloomingrandma November 18, 2015

    Has there ever been a peaceful time in the middle east? There has been war in various countries since Biblical times. We know how our people react to the trauma of war; soldiers and civilians both can react with PTSD symptoms. What happens to a population’s brain structures when one grows up amidst constant violence? Apocalyptic literature is borne of desperation and hopelessness. Some traumatized people react by inflicting their own atrocities on others, as a way of feeling undefeated by a world run amok. The fight or flight mechanisms of the brain are most likely more dominant in chronically traumatized brains. Our invasion of Iraq just lit a fire into this chronically traumatized part of the world. So how does one fight this? Somehow, I don’t think we can just kill our way out. The young men responsible for the carnage in Paris were mere boys on 9/11/01. I don’t think we want to kill children to prevent tomorrow’s terrorists.
    Time for cooler heads to prevail.

    1. tomtype November 18, 2015

      There were not local wars when the great empires ruled, just as there were not in the West when Rome ruled the world. So long as you have small states, and especially a lot of states after the break up of a great empire. Remember that the West created something called the Holy Roman Empire, trying to bring back the glory of Rome. The average citizen did not have as easy or good of life after the call of the Roman Empire until about 1800 in Europe. So, we have people trying to reclaim the glory of the Ottomans in the Middle East. Europe went from 500 AD until 1806 nursing the illusion of restoring the Roman Empire as the Holy Roman Empire, until Napolean finally laid it to permanent rest in 1806. Maybe there is a relationship. Only when it appears possible to have as good of life under the new system do people finally give up the dream of restoring the old.

  6. I of John November 18, 2015

    It may sound overly dramatic but we are only a few steps away from world war. All the necessary players are present. The scene is set. The situation seems more and more dire. The retoric is hot, belicose and fearful, mostly fearful. A self absorbed apocalyptic group wants nothing more than one great last war. They firmly believe that somehow they will prevail in armageddon. All that is needed is a final trigger. It has been said that war resolves more conflicts. Perhaps that is how it has always been. But war is pure chaos that burns wildly and rarely remains contained. A joint solution among all parties is the best, less painful solution.

    1. johninPCFL November 18, 2015

      For the apocalypticos the best scenario is that we establish a “no-fly” zone. Then we’ll shoot down a Russian aircraft and WWIII starts.

      1. I of John November 18, 2015

        That is the quickest route to having a full on mess.

        1. Betty J Rousey November 19, 2015

          Considering all the talk of Putin’s old KGB ties to Chechens, he may be playing on both sides… I trust his integrity about as much as I do the Donald’s.

          1. I of John November 19, 2015

            I remember when I first read the George Bush quote about looking into Putin’s eyes. I thought, gee George did ya know as a KGB man he probably poisoned people for breakfast.

      2. Daniel G November 18, 2015

        I think a super coalition of Russia, France, the US and anyone else with the cajones to jump in and end this thing will be/should be the eventual outcome. It HAS to be that way…and Assad, the base of all this should then just go to a nice dacha outside Moscow and live the rest of his days.
        Should be a real fascinating 2016.

        1. RogerThat November 28, 2015

          disqus.com/home/channel/kenkolkersorphans/ where have you been?

  7. FT66 November 18, 2015

    Those who are thinking they can destroy ISIL or ISIS whatever you call it, are in a deep, deep dreams. Firstly, they need to understand what is ISIL. This is the same group while unorganised caused those times something called: “the surge”. The surge was not enough until it went further in bribing the Sunnis. This ISIL is the same group of the millitary Saddam Hussein used to discipline anyone in the region. The group knows every corner, every tactic, very well organised now and knowhow to emerge as winners. Our soldiers will be sent there to destroy, but in my little thinking they won’t be able. It will be the new afresh start of never ending war which we have experienced the last 13 or so years.

  8. White Rose November 18, 2015

    You want to stop them? Stop using them. Simple enough?

  9. johninPCFL November 18, 2015

    As clear an analogy as I’ve read anywhere: “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, by which I mean they’re a crackpot, deviant sect.”

  10. Aaron_of_Portsmouth November 18, 2015

    The GOP and its minions will always be out of touch with what the US is doing diplomatically and ignorant of the necessity of dialogue, educating children and youth not to adopt the more dangerous and stodgy ideas of adults who live in the past; The Right Wing dreams of the glory years of “Imperialism” with a isolationist view of the world. Hence, the constant and tiresome mantra “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”, primarily by certain bloated politicians and their adoring and obsequious fan club.

    As long as the GOP remains an entity in the governance of America, then the world will be in as much danger, although of a different sort, than what ISIS or similar outfits pose for now.

    Just to listen to his Excellency The Trump alone shows the danger that the Right poses for a safer and saner world. Conservatives in Europe echo the same sentiments, and each differ from the rhetoric of Islamic fanatics in quantity and methodology. (And that mentally-challenged ideologue by the name of Anne adds her strident and shrill voice to the cacophony of The Right along with that of certain media outlets).

    The shameful response of GOP governors towards the plight of people fleeing war and death show the world what a decadent state of affairs Christianity as a practice has become in the West. Christianity as an Institution has simply become a “dead letter”with plenty of lip-service but no acts of empathy or inclusivity to back up the
    talk and insipid recitation of verses from the Bible. Their views on Christianity are as alien as the views of ISIS vis a vis Islam. (And do not get confused by conflating Hadith with The Qur’an).

    1. Bosda November 18, 2015

      And yet, Democrats, including FDR (whom I admire for his Depression-era policies) are the most successful wartime leaders.

      1. TheSkalawag929 November 18, 2015

        We have to be to get the country out of the messes republicans get us into.

        1. Bosda November 19, 2015


      2. JPHALL November 18, 2015

        But unlike today’s Republicans, FDR did not rush to war. He let the Japanese attack and Hitler declare war against us.

  11. Eleanore Whitaker November 18, 2015

    The GOP is already salivating and drooling to turn this attack into the World War III they’ve been predicting since Bush left office.

    Take a good, long, hard look at the faces of these terrorists. Remind of the same sneering, belligerent, right wingers who without their guns are about as useful as yesterday’s trash.

    But, as we all know, Lindsay Graham smells lots of profit from turning a terrorist attack into a fearmongering game to get the GOP another war.

    Remember one thing…every time you hear a traitor right winger bash the President of your country, ISIS knows they found another supporter.

  12. Insinnergy November 18, 2015

    To people who have zero understanding of the suffering of war, it’s always easy to yell for more of it.

    I’m certain they’d have a different view if they actually had to fight it themselves on the ground…. or lived there and the drone strikes and bombs were falling on their heads, and killing their friends and family and neighbours who are innocent and just want to live their lives.

    Jingoistic halfwit cowards.

  13. Theodora30 November 18, 2015

    I appreciate the Isis : Islam :: KKK : Christianity analogy. Funny how the term “Christian terrorist” is never used even though there are plenty of contemporary examples of Christian domestic terrorists. A recent poll of law enforcement officers around our country showed that they rank threats from right wing domestic terrorist groups much more highly than they rank the threat from Isis, Al Qaeda, etc. We recently had Republican presidential candidates bow down to a pastor who advocates killing gay people. Instead of horrified ourptrage from the mainstream media or Democrats we get silence and and argument about calling the Paris bombers jihadists instead of Islamic terrorists. Christian terrorists are like Voldemort – “they who must not be named.”


    1. Theodora30 November 18, 2015

      The Christian terrorist pastor, Kevin Swanson, is also prominent in the homeschooling movement. And we think madrasahs are dangerous.

    2. @HawaiianTater November 18, 2015

      When Muslims are terrorists, Republicans blame all Muslims. When Christians are terrorists, Republicans call them bad apples. GOP hypocrisy at it’s finest.

      1. Theodora30 November 19, 2015

        Or they are labelled lone wolves. Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols acted totally independently with no inspiration from or contact with right wing hate groups, right? (They were inspired by “The Turner Diaries” which is the Christian terrorists’ Bible.)

        Of course when there are Muslims who act on own because they are inspired by Al Qaeda or Isis we freak out about the anti-Western terrorist propaganda they spread over the Internet. When Christian terrorist groups urge the same kinds of things and some loser gets inspired to shoot up a church or school, bomb an abortion clinic, etc. the media downplays their influence and focuses on the mental instability of the perpetrator as if they would have acted without that inspiration.

        1. @HawaiianTater November 19, 2015

          Christianity has a long and bloody history that goes back millennia to it’s very invention. They get mad if you bring it up though. They never want to acknowledge the problems that come from their own religion. Yet, they want innocent Muslims to take responsibility for the actions of the terrorists. They even want to close down the mosques in the USA. Here is a prime example: http://www.addictinginfo.org/2015/11/18/this-amazing-hijab-wearing-guest-just-schooled-megyn-kelly-on-the-real-meaning-of-religious-freedom-video/

          “You wouldn’t shut down churches just because there were one or two Christians who were acting badly.”

          The people that whine the most about religious freedom are the ones who want to get rid of religious freedom altogether. In their minds, religious freedom means forcing everyone else to live by their rules. They are either too stupid or too delusional to comprehend that their idea of religious freedom is in fact religious tyranny.

  14. 1standlastword November 19, 2015

    Western foreign policy gave us the Nation State of Israel and stemming from that terminal disorder and violence in the ME.

    Western intervention after the first world war made conditions right for Hitler and his Third Reich.

    American foreign policy and corporate influence combined has stamped out dictator after dictator all over the world for decades after the second world war and this history brings us up to conditions today.

    Recently, the plank of lies propagated by a Bush Family son made president contributed to the conditions right for Abu Bakr Al Bagdadi–who might otherwise ended up teaching Sharia Law for a living.

    We have a problem worse that ISIS!


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