ISIS: The Psychology of Our Fears

Across the world, various news sources are reporting on the terrors of ISIS. We know that they are intolerant, violent and well-organized; this last piece is perhaps the most frightening. But what is truly driving our fear of ISIS?
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Across the world, various news sources are reporting on the terrors of ISIS. We know what they superficially desire: a Caliphate, or religious state, that stretches across the Arabian Peninsula. We know that they are intolerant, violent and well-organized; this last piece is perhaps the most frightening. We understand, as we speak, President Obama and other world leaders are gauging whether to take the level of intervention further. Critics and supporters of action against ISIS alike understand we are a world power -- if not still the single world power -- on issues such as this. The fissure between the two sides likely rests on our level of responsibility for this crisis -- but also the danger presented by a new, radical force in the region, and perhaps the globe.

But what is truly driving our fear of ISIS? If we are, as many supporters of intervention contend, a world power, what limits our immediate, and absolute destruction of this virulent force? War hawks like Senator John McCain believe we are not only justified in destroying ISIS; we're also imminently capable. Yet somewhere in this belief, we're also inherently threatened. How can both be true?

This, along psychological lines, could be called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance frequently refers to the mental state when one holds two contradictory beliefs, or is confronted by a something that immediately contradicts a belief. Our hegemony (or political power), for much of the last a hundred years, has been predicated on the United State's ability to sway world events in our favor.

Even during the Cold War, the United States recognized how to alter the course of global politics, despite the presence of another great power. Yes, we believed in the Communist scourge, these godless dictators and their minions. They were scary, and with good reason. The USSR consisted of hundreds of millions of people from diverse backgrounds, a massive economy, equipped with nuclear weapons, who believed they too were destined to save the world...from the capitalist pigs.

People in America were scared too -- very scared. Just think of the Cuban Missile Crisis (when, in 1962, ballistic missiles were deployed to Cuba, in close firing range to the United States). Or take the fact that many of our parents were told to hide under desks, in fear of a nuclear attack. These were frightening times. We even added the words "under God" (in 1954) to our Pledge of Allegiance to re-affirm our faith.

Then, the Soviet Union fell. We didn't need to fear the atheist communists any longer. But, as time has shown, being a sole superpower is precarious, and only 10-odd years after the fall of one of the greatest enemies this country has ever known, we faced the crisis of 9/11. This was not cognitive dissonance. This was absolute fear. Despite the threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis and perhaps an invasion, we hadn't been attacked on our own soil since Pearl Harbor. Yet there was a country we could target (Afghanistan), a government to overthrow (the Taliban), and a terrorist leader whose name would be ingrained in our minds forever.

But the question remains (and I've deviated here quite a bit), why is ISIS such a threat, and why is this cognitive dissonance so important? What differentiates this fear from that of the Soviet Union?

Many people have postulated it's ISIS's religiosity that makes it so frightening; fighting in the name of God, these people will do anything to ensure their success. There probably is a psychological principle we can apply to zealotry, but I don't think that's it. That does make them frightening. But it shouldn't stop the United States from demolishing their forces. Maybe it's because we opened the floodgates to this new terrorist group by leaving the Middle East? Perhaps, but that seems too simple. We didn't do our due diligence in Iraq, but power gaps always exist, and we don't see a new ISIS popping up every time we leave a country. Both of these arguments may seem slightly reductive. For the sake of brevity, it's easier to say why this cognitive dissonance exists, and why, for all our power, ISIS is an increasingly terrifying force.

Simply, we as the world power, lack any influence over this new, radical regime. We cannot bargain with them; they are not a traditional nation. Even Iran, a country run by an Ayatollah (or Muslim religious leader), understands politics, or at least cares enough not to flare tempers. Even Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, ostensibly a communist nation and perhaps one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, knows that he's better off negotiating than starting a war. Even the deposed and deceased Saddam Hussein tried to finagle his way out of battle with the United States.

Yes, leaders like Lindsey Graham and John McCain can keep advocating for more war. But the truth is, not only they, but our nation at large, is facing this cognitive dissonance. We are facing a new force -- one that will not, and does not care to accede to American dominance. They aren't beholden to the world political sphere. And more frighteningly, they don't care to ever be part of it. They will not listen to President Obama, and they will not stop the war with the threat of economic sanctions or the premise of peace talks. ISIS is the face of a new crisis. Yet we should recognize this is not necessarily a religious war. Or an economic battle. Or a cultural one. This is a fight for both the psychology of our nation, and the world.

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