Can ideologies be defeated with rifles?

John Kerry recently wrote a much needed piece in the New York Times about how all countries must come together to fight ISIS - the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (who changes their name every few months - previously ISIL, now just IS).  

I say this piece is “much needed” because these bad-boys DO need to be crushed.  But crushing them today is just part of the fix. ISIS is just the most recent physical incarnation of an ideology that has existed for a few hundred years. An ideology that continues to rise from the dead as this article explains.

Our military is really good at killing thousands of people, as our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decades have shown.  We’re even really good at destroying governments.  But we really suck at defeating ideologies.

To someone with a hammer, every problem looks like it needs hammering.  To the country with the most advanced military in history, everything looks like it needs a military solution.  Yes, bullets and bombs are very effective at killing today’s “enemies”.  But bullets and bombs will also create tomorrow’s enemies.  It’s time we recognized that until we offer a more attractive alternative for the bad-boys who are drawn to these extremist ideologies, new bad-boys will always take-up arms against us.

Think about it.  Osama Bin Laden would have been unable to get anything accomplished if he couldn’t find foot-soldiers to join his movement.  The leaders of ISIS would still be a bunch of angry men looking for jobs if they couldn’t find foot-soldiers to join their movement.  The majority of people who join these movements, whose participation will mostly likely end in their deaths, are young men seeking meaning in their lives.  These are young men who have no more life-fulfilling options available to them than dying for a cause.  

The New York Times also published a very good opinion article a couple weeks ago by Ross Douthat.

He says, “We may crush them militarily, kill and scatter their adherents, but variations on Al Qaeda and ISIS will probably persist as long as liberalism does.”  While I agree with his overall argument that Islamic extremists will exist for a very long time, the point Ross is missing is that it’s not “liberalism” that continues to feed these ideologies with willing adherents.  It’s the fact that the foot-soldiers drawn to these ideologies have no better alternatives for living a meaningful life.  

However fucked-up ISIS may be in other ways, at least it is doing exactly what it says it will do, and doing it very quickly with no bureaucracy involved. To young men, that clarity of message and clear action shines through the fog of testosterone like a laser.  And it’s young men who join these movements and bring down civilizations.

Every action in the world boils down to convincing enough individuals to do something they hadn’t previously considered doing.  Jihadists are not a homogenous group of people born ready to die for their cause.  They are populated with a fringe group of young men with too much testosterone, dissatisfied with their current lives and future prospects, and willing to make the necessary life changes to be part of something that makes them feel like their lives matter in an historical perspective.  They are willing to die for something they think is right.  These are boys who could change the world for the better if someone showed them how.  But western civilization is only showing them how they don’t want to live.

Another recent article in the New York Times discusses the social media marketing ISIS is performing, aimed at recruiting westerners to their cause.

“A British fighter identified as Brother Abu Bara al-Hindi poses the call to jihad as a test for comfortable Westerners. “Are you willing to sacrifice the fat job you’ve got, the big car, the family?” he asks. Despite such luxuries, he says, “Living in the West, I know how you feel — in the heart you feel depressed.” The Prophet Muhammad, he declares, said, “The cure for depression is jihad.””

For many of us, the western consumer-focused materialistic way of life doesn’t exactly provide for a fulfilling life - in our hearts we feel depressed.  We’re all just trying to live a comfortable life - collecting a paycheck, getting married, making some kids, getting some stuff to fill our homes, staying entertained with whatever Hollywood comes up with, making a weekly visit to the Olive Garden, hoping no one gets cancer and we don't lose our jobs.  With enough alcohol, weed, or prescription drugs most of us are able to suppress the underlying frustration that we’re wasting our lives, just long-enough to make it to the grave without going postal.  

ISIS has a point.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be part of something larger than yourself?   To feel that your life mattered beyond just procreating?

I contend that American society, and to a lesser degree all “western” society has helped create Islamic extremism by instead of being the guiding light of freedom and justice that people everywhere seek, we have become the guiding light of wealth inequality, and duplicity.  All our formative documents talk about “liberty and justice for ALL”, but everyone in our society knows that with enough money and influence, liberty and justice can be bought (and taken away from others).  Consequently, with no society on earth shining the light, disaffected young men find the clarity, simplicity, and promise of an Islamist caliphate as the most attractive alternative.

This American experiment of ours started out so hopefully 238 years ago.  And after World War II it truly was the guiding light of the world (at least for white people).  Unfortunately, the greed inherent in all humans has redirected America from being “by the people, for the people” to “by the people, for the winners of capitalism with the most money.”

I’m willing to bet that if we aligned our walk with our talk - if we made “liberty and justice for all” a reality for ALL of us, instead of just words - fewer disaffected young men around the world would be so eager to die for radical Islamism.

Aligning our talk with our walk is exactly what my five legislative actions are intended to do.  It wouldn't happen right away, but within a generation America could become that guiding light of liberty and justice for ALL of us.  Maybe then, bad-boys all over the planet will use America as the example for the type of country their revolutions should become.