Friday, September 12, 2014



Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

September 12, 2014


                In the current wave of news of beheadings, I found myself wondering: Just what is ISIL’s appeal to donors, let alone to recruits?  This morning I looked back at Al Jazeera America’s reports, going back to June, on the rise of ISIL, and on the news ISIL broadcasts worldwide, with the assistance of many re-broadcasters.

                ISIL has its Iraqi roots in the banning by the US representative of Baath Party members from holding any post in the Iraqi government, creating a de facto Shia government, in a country with a Shia majority and Sunni minority.  Former Baath members joined ISI, the Islamic State in Iraq, in retaking Faluja and other cities of Anbar Province, the first seat of ISIL government.

This reversed Saddam’s Baath Party oppression of Shia at home, and war against Shia in Iran, corollary to a Sunni government with a bad human rights record, disenfranchising a Shia majority in Bahrain, where the US stations its Persian Gulf Navy.  Conversely, a Shia minority formally governs Syria, formally an enemy of the US, in fact allied with the US against ISIS.  To add to the confusion of US alliances and involvement, the US began its involvement by installing a puppet Shah in 1953, and later retaliated by helping arm Saddam Hussein to launch a war against Iran that left two thousand dead.  And now Iran is backing up the Iraqi army alongside the US.  If there is one thing the US lacks in the area, it is authority for moral, even fraternal, consistency.

In one sense, ISIL English-language news is impressive.  The appear committed to public health, to providing quality goods and social services honestly, and nothing I have seen in Western news media has accused them of corruption.

What bothers the US the most is the brutality of the ISIL version of justice.  (Let’s stop calling it Sharia law; sharia is simply the word for law, roughly equivalent to common law in most of the US.)  It fits Cesare Beccaria’s 1764 portrayal of European, retributive justice as “spectacle.”  The spectacle of offenders receiving their legally literal just deserts is intended to be a general deterrent to others.

The Achilles heel of ISIL is that they confound punishment of wrongdoing with punishment just for being whomever they believe to be devils incarnate.  Punishment works no better for others than it does for the US when it creates enemies with its drone strikes.  In remarkable coalition, those at ISIL’s front lines will eventually take it apart.  In that sense, for the time being, enmity has become an ecumenical force in the region.  As President Obama has said, there’s no telling where, when, or how long ISIL will remain a governing presence.

In the moment, I am struck once again by how forces in the US mobilize to demonize overt violence, while they so readily embrace, in this case, “collateral damage” in criminal justice and killing “terrorists” abroad.  Are we more humane because we hold so many prisoners on death rows for decades, and instead of cutting off their heads in public admit journalists to describe death by lethal injection?  Are we more humane when as an alternative to the death penalty, we instead embrace the expedient of sentencing young people to life in prison without parole?  Are we more humane when we effectively sentence someone to life in a locked mental institution instead of to prison or the death chamber?  Doesn’t this humanity/civility of ours only make it easier to take out wrongdoers in world-record proportion?

In one sense, ISIL justice is more honest, more morally responsible, than the pretense that US governments are a world-leading model of goodness and decency.  The fact that I don’t condone justice as punishment, period, is beside the point.  I note the discrepancy between our willingness to bomb those who have killed two US journalists in our faces, and the restraint with which we respond to witnessing police officers killing those they wrongly judge deserve it.  Collectively and individually, as Sigmund Freud pointed out, when we demonize ISIL, we build further defenses against assuming responsibility for the supposedly kinder, gentler yet more far-reaching violence we tolerate among ourselves.  I’m glad that the US is consulting and coordinating with those Immediately threatened by ISIL cultural genocide.  I’m saddened to see the occasion for the US to assert moral superiority.  Love and peace, hal



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