Vengeance as Policy

By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

-Herman Melville, Moby Dick

The response to the grotesquely brutal murder of Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh on February 3 was intense and swift. Within hours after the Islamic State released its obscene video, Jordan hanged two al-Qaeda prisoners. Thousands of Jordanian citizens marched through the streets of Amman in a demonstration joined by Queen Rania. The young pilot’s father, Safi al-Kaseasbeh, demanded “revenge, severe revenge for the blood of Muath.” Tribal elders, who only recently were arguing that Jordan should withdraw from the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, now called for retribution in the name of “Muath the Martyr.” By the following day, Jordanian F-16s were bombing ISIS targets in Syria.

The conservative media in this country promptly labeled King Abdullah II a hero. On Fox & Friends, Elisabeth Hasselbeck praised him for “stepping up with strong leadership and clarity, ” adding, “What is our president doing?” Even Charles Barkley weighed in, publicly expressing his wish that President Obama were more like the Jordanian king.

Please excuse me if I refrain from joining the fawning multitudes.

The truth is that neither Jordan’s response nor the widespread outrage voiced across the Arab world will change anything. It will not produce new initiatives. It will not result in a coalition of Islamic nations sending ground troops into Syria and Iraq.

What we are witnessing is a momentary paroxysm of religious rage expressed in the language of retribution. Typical were the remarks of Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, who described ISIS as “satanic” and insisted that its adherents should be “killed, crucified” or “have their limbs amputated.” The unfortunate lieutenant has been proclaimed a martyr in an ephemeral and undefined cause.

Appeals to blood lust and retaliatory executions may momentarily satisfy the emotional needs of angry mobs, but they have no lasting significance. Revenge is reason unhinged. Vengeance as a policy is unlikely to produce long-term solutions. The recent killings of Japanese journalists did not provoke similar outpourings of rage. Nor have the beheadings of numerous aid workers and non-Muslim foreign nationals. Jordan remains a fertile ground for ISIS recruiters. As recently as 2005, 57% of Jordanians polled by Pew agreed with the view that suicide bombings of innocent civilians are justified “to defend Islam from its enemies,” a figure which dropped dramatically only after the bombings of three hotels in Amman in November of that year.

While debate will continue over the role of the invasion of Iraq in the unraveling of the Middle East, it ought to be abundantly clear that the elimination of ISIS and its supporters is an ideological problem. It will not be solved by U.S. airstrikes and drone warfare or tit-for-tat atrocities or Clint Eastwood wannabes. It will require instead that tribal and ethnic loyalties be subordinated to national interests. It will require that leaders in the Middle East abandon the religious schizophrenia that characterizes their public rhetoric: the condemnation of extremism and the simultaneous condemnation of western attacks on extremists as an assault on Islam.

Most importantly, it will require that reason and cooperative effort replace the politics of vengeance. Ahab may have sworn his hatred with vehement eloquence, but only the whale survived.

Sources: Aki Peritz, “What Jordan Knows About Psyching Out ISIS,” The Daily Beast (Feb. 20, 2015); Tom Finn, “Calls for revenge in Jordan as nation mourns slain pilot,” Middle East Eye (Feb. 13, 2015); Richard Wike, “Widespread concerns about extremism in Muslim nations, and little support for it,” Pew Research Center (Feb. 5, 2015); Mark Thompson, “The Power of Vengeance,” Time (Feb. 5, 2015); ” ‘Crucify them!’ Muslim leaders condemn ISIS execution of Jordanian pilot,” (Feb. 4, 2015); Jim Michaels and Jane Onyanga-Omara, “Pilot killing triggers backlash throughout Middle East,” USA Today (Feb. 4, 2015).

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays of art are solely their decision and responsibility.

43 thoughts on “Vengeance as Policy”

  1. I agree, want to fight endless wars? Bring back the draft and a specific was tax.

  2. Al, A good new commenter and Notre Dame grad, Edward, posted that piece earlier this week. But, I’m happy you linked it here. Hopefully a few hand wringers read it. And folks, it’s THE ATLANTIC! Not “Faux News.”

    Charles Barkley voted for Obama but says he will maybe vote Republican in 2016. He hates Hillary. That puts him in a very large tent.

  3. One aspect that might develop out of the Islamic State problem will be that a scorched earth / total war situation could be the end game in dealing with them. If they become more interwoven into the societies for which they are occupying the chances of this increase for both sides.

    The ruthless on behalf of IS’s behalf contributes to this side, and the result of this promotes the opposition to respond out of fear and vengeance.

    If one were to look at the Kobané campaign it shows an early example of this. Kobané as it now sites is in complete rubble. the Kurdish YPG / YPG and Peshmerge forces took almost no prisoners The main reason stated in their media I have monitored is that the Kurds do not want to risk IS fighters carrying bombs to detonate upon the approach of the Kurds to receive their surrender. There is an ideological and psy-ops advantage in that it is claimed by the Kurds that there is a widespread belief among IS fighters that dying at the hands of a woman e.g. a YPJ soldier, means being refused paradise in the afterlife.

    The almost suicidal nature of many of the IS tactics ups the increase to a scorched earth strategy. Kurdish intelligence also has shown that many of the vanguard IS fighters sent in when it appeared likely that Kobané will be liberated were low level, non-Arabic foreign fighters that the IS sent in as cannon fodder.

    Mosul is likely to become the latest front. IS has been using forced conscription to extract more members to its ranks among the Mosul population and brutal means are being exacted against the citizens there. I think this will be telling of what might become of dealing with the IS in a situation than on a remote road in the countryside.

  4. Jeff Silberman,
    I’ve been saying that since the USA began this folly of a war against a tactic…

  5. Nick,
    Re: Pope Francis
    Would Jesus ask that we stop killing Christians or fellow human beings?

  6. Al O’Heem,
    The Atlantic article is far more than interesting; it’s a must read. If there ever were a definition of True Believer, it would the Islamic State. That article is clear proof that Islam is absolutely incompatible with western cultures because at its core, it WILL NOT subordinate it’s law to secular law.

  7. Chrissake, even the Pope is calling for a righteous war to protect Christians being slaughtered. You guys love the Pope, don’t you?

  8. The Mideast culture worships ruthless strength. We have shown weakness. In that vacuum rose ISIS. They must be crushed ruthlessly. Hopefully it is not us who have to do it.

  9. This is intelligent counterbalancing of what is a very irrational set of events. The question of categorical “policy” is a technical one. It does seem that such brutal retribution is not only metered out generously in some of the maintenance of power abuses of state systems but has aristocratic class nuances as well. The dangers of dealing with terrorism (?) is that we end up adopting the same or worse tactics…but this gamesmanship has limits measured by who and whom has more to lose and at what magnitude. It can be argued that historically terrorism itself arises from an imbalance of power relations that utilizes extreme methods. However it is also true that in the Kyber Pass individuals have been skinned alive for simply having been caught passing through as strangers. It hardly seems reasonable to appeal to humanity or civilized behavior in such a context.

    The real question becomes one of human values that insidiously creep into our own back yard. Policy only reflects such tolerance for laws legitimate inhumanity as a method of coercive and preemptive submission. What we have seen in our own country reflects a gradual decline in ideals rendered impotent by hard realisms forced upon us by both war and political reactionary agendas. We don’t accept torture, but it is now commonly held as in the process of being resolved (even as it has become embedded in practice in secret and in the open arena). We don’t accept beheadings but warfare maims and decapitates at a more impersonal level and now under the “opps” of drones doing the dirty work from a computer screen in never never land.
    It is tit for tat in blood and evil as we speak.

    So while we squirm in our seats knowing that we all felt some relief that some human reaction was taking a measure of powerful response, it is well that you point out that we are all too prone to reactionary brutality. To make it a policy adds one more straw to the proverbial camels back.

    Thank you for reminding us about civilization and dehumanization,…It seems we are all somewhere between Oliver Stone, Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry, Chris Kyle and Robert Bales in an unspoken acceptance of a distorted and perverted relief that provides no true solution and sends us silently down a very dark path of no return.

  10. Fox and Friends also lauds Putin as a strong leader. Gulianni says Obama doesn’t love America, that he wasn’t raised like we were. They want an American President to emulate Putin, a dictator, or a Abullah, a King. In one breath we hear Imperial President, in the other breath we hear “weak leader”. The Mideast isn’t the only region to be putting out schizophrenic messages.

  11. What if 40,000 troops had not retreated, as ordered by Obama. That presence was important to keep the shaky peace. And here we are again.

    We did nothing while Israel was being bombed. Bombed from tunnels built with money from us that was meant to help the citizens, not militants. We didn’t speak out against it. We told Israel to keep responses under control. The American people paid for those tunnels and weaponry. I, for one, don’t want another penny of our taxes given to the Palestinians. They could have improved their lives but voted for the violent. I hope Congress stops the funding.

    If we have no business in Iraq, Syria, etc., we have no business being involved with Palestinians.

  12. Mike A – Please excuse me if I refrain from joining the fawning multitudes. I do not excuse you!

  13. I will take seriously Fox’s claim that ISIS is an existential threat to the U.S. when Conservatives call for a military draft and boots on the ground immediately. Until then, the fear-mongering is just pandering for ratings.

  14. One last point I felt should be made outside my original post. Starting off your writing as a political hit piece against those you detest really takes away from what overall was a decent article. I understand this is an opinion piece, but you lose a lot of credibility by starting off that way.

    I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt because of the respect I have for Professor Turley. However, seeing that really turned me off at the beginning. I don’t care if it’s against Fox, MSNBC, CNN, HuffPo, etc. It just takes a lot away from what could have been.


  15. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” ad infinitum…

  16. Chinggis’ great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandfather teach how to rule. He say: “Accept me as your leader or die.” Was not bloodthirsty. Drank yak milk, not blood. Vengeance belong to Spirit World, not yaks or man. Axe me no question, and I fell you no lies.

  17. You make some good points, but I believe you don’t understand the situation. This part of the world is not modern. It still lives by a rather base mentality and a large majority of the population do not understand what you propose. They only react with violence and vengeance because that is all they know and have been taught.

    If this were a Western world type of situation then all of your points make sense. But this is the Middle East and these are the kinds of things that they simply cannot fathom. Also, the reaction by Jordan is the kind of language that the populations of these nations understand and respect. It gives them courage and actually starts a thought process that ISIS may be wrong and worth fighting.

    Remember, this entire problem is because of religious ideology. Rational and reflective thought does not enter into their conscious. They only react when their ideology is threatened and the blood of their people have been drawn. If the US will not militarily take care of the problem, the only solution left is for the population of ME nations to feel that ideological threat and rise up to fight it. The problem with that is there are far more people in the ME that agrees with ISIS than don’t. At least as far as protecting their ideology is concerned.

    Pundits and ‘experts’ can extol all they want about how a majority of Muslims don’t agree with ISIS. However, the lack of action by this ‘majority’ speaks far more truth to that lie than any words could. I will say that a lot of this silence could be equated to fear. But in the case of the people of Jordan, that fear was over come when their blood was spilled. It is going to take a lot more of that before a true opposition to ISIS will rise, and by then I’m afraid it will be too late.


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