License to Kill
Never underestimate the power of rage.
How does a young British rapper end up beheading innocent journalists in two of the most gruesome videos in recent memory? Why would troubled kids from Minnesota travel to the other side of the world to die in the service of jihad? And how does a leading Russian intellectual publicly call for "genocide" against Ukrainians, while a star Moscow TV commentator proudly reminds his compatriots that their country has the power to "turn the United States into radioactive dust"?
There’s a lot that divides pro-Russian separatists and Islamist fighters in Syria and Iraq. They come from very different cultures, and they’re driven by profoundly different circumstances and motives. (Indeed, the Islamic State recently saw fit to declare its undying hostility to Moscow, which it regards as a persecutor of Muslims.) But as President Barack Obama and other Western leaders struggle to come up with effective policies to contain these hostile forces, it’s important to consider what unites them. It’s an urge that liberal democracies prefer to gloss over or ignore. It’s irrational, unpredictable, and immeasurably destructive. It’s the feeling of rage.
The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service picked up on this in a recent interview. Hans-Georg Maassen observed that the Islamic State is now even more popular among young would-be jihadists than al Qaeda. And that’s not in spite of the videos in which jihadists show themselves beheading James Foley and Steven Sotloff, but precisely because of them. "What attracts people is the intense brutality, the radicalism and rigor," he said.
This conclusion will be shocking to some. How can people be attracted by "intense brutality"? Most of us shy away from the extreme violence displayed in these videos. It’s just too much to take.
Yet there many in the world who find bloodletting invigorating, even cathartic. (Indeed, various versions of the execution videos have racked up hundreds of thousands of viewings on YouTube alone, meaning that millions have probably watched them on various social media by now — despite well-meaning efforts by media outlets not to share them.)
Every society has such people, and probably always will. Nor can they be dismissed as outliers. Remember that delicious tingle you had during one of those vicious scenes on Game of Thrones? We like to forget that human beings are also animals, and embedded deep inside all of us is an atavistic urge to fight, to dominate, to inflict pain. We don’t like to acknowledge this, but it’s there, in varying degrees. At some point we’ve all felt its pull.
Modern societies have set up elaborate mechanisms to defend us against our own worst instincts: school rules, courts, police forces, systems of public morality. (Not to mention acceptable safety valves for the release of aggression, like the National Football League or ultimate fighting.) But sometimes things can go haywire. It sometimes happens that large groups of people, even entire societies, succumb to the draw of shared fury. In Rwanda, a mere 20 years ago, five-sixths of the country ganged up on the other sixth — and some 800,000 people, maybe more, lost their lives. Those who answer the call of violence are often those who feel themselves to be the weak, the underprivileged, the losers. It’s this intense sense of injustice that, in their view, gives them license to overthrow the rules made by the winners.
When political leaders decide to exploit such feelings, they can open a direct path to catastrophe. In Rwanda, Hutu Power extremists constructed a plan for genocide based on their exaggerated feelings of victimization at the hands of the Tutsi, who long served as the country’s ruling elite. As Yugoslavia collapsed, Slobodan Milosevic bundled the diffuse resentments of the Serbs and focused them into a murderous laser beam of religious and ethnic hatred.
Democracies have built-in safety systems to guard against this sort of thing. Political participation enables the peaceful solution of conflicts. Free speech allows groups to air out their differences and figure out ways of getting along. Protections for minorities ensure that the winners of elections don’t take their victory as an excuse to lord it over the losers. Rage — and injustice — exist everywhere. Democracies don’t claim to eliminate them. But what they can aspire to do is offer practical solutions, preferably without people getting killed.
What we’re seeing in places like Syria and Iraq and eastern Ukraine is the failure of such safeguards. In the Middle East, jihadists don’t hide their viciousness — in fact, they parade it, partly as a technique of intimidation, but also as a straightforward recruiting tool. I would argue, indeed, that many of the young westerners who have been seduced into joining holy warriors in Somalia or Afghanistan aren’t lured by Islam so much as jihad — the promise that they can engage in enthralling brutality that would normally earn them censure but is now justified by past injustices that have to be "cleansed" from the historical record.
The jihadist excesses are familiar enough. But now Moscow is mining a similarly ominous vein. In eastern Ukraine, cynical Kremlin propaganda is channeling the widespread sense of resentment felt by many Russians over the collapse of the USSR and the turmoil of the "democracy" that followed it. President Vladimir Putin — a man whose disciplined exterior sometimes seems to mask an abiding fury — offered an indignant catalogue of their gripes in his March speech on the annexation of Crimea.
Russia’s collective slow burn is compounded by the widely shared belief that it was the arrogant West, not the Russians themselves, who orchestrated the fall of Soviet power and the chaos that followed. It’s this same feeling of injustice that Moscow cites to justify its shredding of the international rulebook. The separatists and their supporters know that they don’t have to worry about niceties like the Geneva Convention or the agreement promising to respect Ukrainian sovereignty that Moscow signed in 1994.
No public figure in Russia has felt the need to chide university professor Alexander Dugin for his remarks advocating the "genocide" of Ukrainians — perhaps because so much of what Dugin has pushed for during his long career as an ultranationalist is now being implemented by the Russian government. Indeed, Duma member Ilya Drozdov immediately doubled down: "The sooner the bastard entity called Ukraine is wiped off the map, the better." Similarly, Putin has not thought it necessary to remind Dmitri Kiselev, propagandist-in-chief on Russian state TV, that nuclear war is not something to be wished for. As a matter of fact, some Russians seem to be actively flirting with the idea. It’s hard to imagine a better example of frustrated rage at work.
The separatists’ recent public humiliation in Donetsk of a woman vaguely accused of supporting Ukrainian government forces fits this pattern.* So, too, does the insouciance with which the separatists have abducted and tortured their opponents. They blithely post the videos of their interrogations to YouTube — usually with a few good ethnic slurs thrown in, and sometimes adding an invitation to join the group that’s doing the interrogating. (The photo above shows captured Ukrainian soldiers in one of those separatist videos.) There’s no shame about any of it. Why should there be, when you know that Vladimir Putin — not to mention the Russian Orthodox Church — will offer you across-the-board remission for any sins committed?
Autocrats — be they caliphs or presidents — are happy to capitalize on their subjects’ feelings of anger. They know it can be a good way of keeping themselves in power. But precisely because their followers don’t expect to play by the rules, such leaders can’t be trusted. Compromise makes them look weak; deals are there to be broken. Anyone hoping to rein in the forces of rage should understand this.
It’s also important to realize that the politics of collective anger is ultimately self-destructive. I don’t think that the Islamic State is destined to survive for the long term; its nihilistic fury already has many other countries closing ranks against it. Meanwhile, there are also signs that Russia’s fit of national pique is sending its economy into a tailspin — and much of the destruction is actually self-imposed. Ideologies based on violence, hatred, and exclusion don’t make a good basis for stability. But that’s little source of consolation. The question is how much damage they can do before they burn themselves out.
*Correction, September 12, 2014: The separatists subjected Irina Dovgan to abuse because she was rumored to be aiding the Ukrainian army. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that she was targeted for supporting the separatists. (Return to reading.)