Whatever your politics, you’re not likely to feel great about America right now. After all, there’s Ferguson (the whole world was watching!), an increasingly unpopular president, a Congress whoseapproval ratings make the president look like a rock star, rising poverty, weakening wages, and a growing inequality gap just to start what could be a long list. Abroad, from Libya and Ukraine to Iraq and the South China Sea, nothing has been coming up roses for the U.S. Polls reflect a general American gloom, with 71% of the public claiming the country is “on the wrong track.” We have the look of a superpower down on our luck.
What Americans have needed is a little pick-me-up to make us feel better, to make us, in fact, feel distinctly good. Certainly, what official Washington has needed in tough times is a bona fide enemy so darn evil, so brutal, so barbaric, so inhuman that, by contrast, we might know just how exceptional, how truly necessary to this planet we really are.
In the nick of time, riding to the rescue comes something new under the sun: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), recently renamed Islamic State (IS). It’s a group so extreme that even al-Qaeda rejected it, so brutal that it’s brought back crucifixion, beheading, waterboarding, and amputation, so fanatical that it’s ready to persecute any religious group within range of its weapons, so grimly beyond morality that it’s made the beheading of an innocent American a global propaganda phenomenon. If you’ve got a label that’s really, really bad like genocide or ethnic cleansing, you can probably apply it to ISIS’s actions.
It has also proven so effective that its relatively modest band of warrior jihadis has routed the Syrian and Iraqi armies, as well as the Kurdish pesh merga militia, taking control of a territory larger than Great Britain in the heart of the Middle East. Today, it rules over at least four million people, controls its own functioning oil fields and refineries (and so their revenues as well as infusions of money from looted banks, kidnapping ransoms, and Gulf state patrons). Despite opposition, it still seems to be expanding and claims it has established a caliphate.