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ISIS: collective insanity or just the latest generation’s death cult?

October 4, 2014

The day will come when ISIS has no more hostages like Alan Henning to kill. What then?

One only needs to look at the killing of Lee Rigby and the events in Saudi Arabia in 2004 to realise that there are many options open to people who are prepared to give up their lives for a cause.

Lee Rigby’s public slaughter is relatively fresh in our memories. For those who were in or around Saudi Arabia when al-Qaeda affiliates bombed western compounds, dragged the body of a western worker behind a pickup truck and kept the head of a slaughtered hostage in a fridge, the memory of those events will not easily fade, even though the perpetrators didn’t have the benefit of the social media to advertise their murderous piety. Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, who was gunned down in Riyadh, will not forget those times in a hurry.

The fact is that we westerners are wide open to attack, whether we are walking the streets of cities in the Middle East or going about our business in our home countries. A few weeks ago I was one of several hundred people packed into a holding area queuing up to go through security at one of Britain’s main airports. There was no evidence of any measures outside the entrance or in the hall to detect a potential suicide bomber. It occurred to me then that a detonation would cause carnage, just as it did in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport three years ago.

As the military cliché goes, we live in a target-rich environment. Nothing new about that. In Britain there are plenty of people still living who remember the Blitz, and plenty, including me, whose lives were touched by the activities of the IRA. The only difference is that these days an essential element of the terrorist’s tool kit is a mobile phone and a Twitter account. Our wonderful digital age has served to spread the terror way beyond those immediately caught up in it.

But we also have to be aware that each three-minute horror show diminishes the impact of the previous one. Just as when the Apollo space program died through lack of public interest, our sense of reality becomes desensitised to the familiar. Consider Ebola. The world has become used to people dying of the disease in Sierra Leone every five minutes. Only when one of their own falls victim to the virus do the people of Dallas become exercised.

I remember visiting a friend in South Africa a couple of decades ago, a time when apartheid was tottering and the wave of violent crime that is now endemic in the country was getting underway. Our friend lived in a whites-only suburb. She had a panic button that summoned an armed response team. She had one room in the house protected by iron bars where she and her daughter could take refuge. Supposedly one of the gun-toting patrols would come to her aid within three minutes of getting the call. She had a guard dog. She accepted as inevitable that her housemaid might at some stage steal from her. When we were visiting her, she and my wife witnessed a murder in a supermarket. They were three yards away from a man who killed a woman at the checkout.

How can you live like this, we asked her? Well, she replied, it’s not as bad as the foreign media portrays it. And I remembered that back home we had become used to the IRA bombings, and scoffed at depictions of our country as a war zone. Being blown up in the streets of Birmingham, or robbed and raped in Johannesburg had become an accepted hazard of daily life, just as for Londoners in the Second World War death from the sky was an ever-present prospect.

The moral of this gloomy meditation is that normality is an ever-shifting thing. We adapt, our expectations change and we find blessings where we can even in circumstances that would have been unthinkable the day or the week before.

ISIS will be defeated, and we will relax again, maybe for a few years, maybe for a couple of decades. But then some other group will rise up and threaten us, and another generation will become used to looking anxiously across its shoulders while riding the tube or walking the streets. And once again, we will rage about death cults and twisted morality. We will describe the cruelty and the killings as acts of collective insanity.

Every generation discovers first hand a reality about the human condition: groups like ISIS that carry out acts of horrific violence are not collectively insane. They are simply doing what humans do under certain conditions, and have been doing for as long as there have been humans on the planet. Morality has little to do with their behaviour. It’s just that the thin veneer of what the majority considers to be civilised behaviour is easily cracked. All it takes is a convincing ideology, unfulfilled human needs and ruthless, manipulative leaders. Thus has it always been and ever will be.

One only has to think of Josef Stalin and his cabal of drunken, fawning underlings presiding over the starvation of millions of smallholders for the sake of an ideology, the torture and execution of millions of imagined internal enemies and the sacrifice of yet more millions of soldiers and civilians through his blundering tactics in the Second World War to know that ISIS is only the latest, but by no means the most virulent, in a long line of death cults.

While we should never accept the murders of Alan Henning and the other hostages as anything other than disgusting acts, we should not be surprised or shocked. This is the world we live in laid bare by media more pervasive than in any other era. Could we really have expected much different when so much money and artistic creativity is invested in mass-audience movies and TV series that depict levels of pornographic cruelty, malice and destruction far exceeding what we see in those nasty snuff movies churned out by ISIS?

Yet against that dark backdrop, even in Syria, Sierra Leone and other grievously damaged societies, people still find it within themselves to live, love and laugh. Because that’s what humans do. Thus it has always been and ever will be.

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