Good News & Bad

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday brought some good news and some bad news.

Let’s start with the good news. In a front page story in the Washington Post, Liz Sly analyzed signs that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is apparently suffering from some internal divisions and is now having recruiting problems.

Reports of rising tensions between foreign and local fighters, aggressive and increasingly unsuccessful attempts to recruit local citizens for the front lines, and a growing incidence of guerrilla attacks against Islamic State targets suggest the militants are struggling to sustain their carefully cultivated image as a fearsome fighting force drawing Muslims together under the umbrella of a utopian Islamic state.

Sly details the way that ISIS’s ambition of uniting diverse Sunni groups into a single caliphate has proven more difficult to achieve than anticipated. A few months ago, as the group steam-rolled its power across large swaths of Iraq and Syria, they seemed to have the wind at their back. History was on their side. Recruits were many. But, now that sense of invincibility has stalled and while there is no actual, external military threat to the group’s hold on the territory already gained, the internal rancor that has accompanied the sense of stalemate is tearing the organization apart.

This report came after a weekend in which I must have posed this question to half a dozen people: Are there any good, readable books on the decline of terrorist organizations? When I was growing up, the Red Brigades were terrorizing Italy and the Baader Meinhof gang was active in Germany. I remember the kidnapping of Aldo Moro and the sense that Italy was collapsing. And then, what? Where did the terrorists go? In the case of the Irish Republican Army, there were peace negotiations and a national reconciliation. But, I do not recall such efforts with these other groups. What happened to Shining Path, the Maoist rebels in Peru? Is there a useful, and concise, literature on the decline of terrorism from its own internal contradictions? This was my question and I am still looking for an answer.  

One thing seems plausible from Sly’s reporting: Without the ideological ambition of a restored caliphate appearing likely, or even possible, ISIS is just another group of violent nihilists, a gang of thugs. Now, gangs of thugs have been known to take over countries before. What were the Nazis? What were Mussolini and his brown shirts? What is Putin? But, unless these thugs gain state power and sustain an ideological narrative, can nihilism survive as a force, a geo-strategic force? Or, does it exhaust itself like most random violence? And, in the cauldron of the Mideast, what and where would that state power be, and what would it look like? And, if the narrative cannot sustain a setback, is it a sufficient narrative? I do not want to be prematurely hopeful that anytime soon ISIS will seem as distant as the Red Brigades. But, perhaps the dire predictions of the fear mongers over at FOX should be considered with greater sobriety.

Last Friday, I attended a lecture by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who was formerly the nuncio to Egypt and the Holy See’s representative to the Arab League. He discussed the necessity of on-going dialogue with the Muslim world, explained the origins of the idea of the caliphate – and the fact that ISIS’s self-proclamation of such a caliphate was suspect in the eyes of orthodox Muslims all along – and also debunked some hoary, and downright mistaken, Western ideas about shari’a and jihad. The lecture was excellent and informative. Our friends at the Africa Faith & Justice Network have not yet posted the video, but here is a link to the text.

The bad news came inside a bit of good news: This week, Robert Putnam’s new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis is being published this week. I met Putnam at an event sponsored by John Carr’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought in Public Life, at which Putnam spoke about some of the research that is contained in this new book. He told us about “Mary Sue” who represents those fellow Americans who have watched their social capital decline and finally evaporate in ways that have not only impoverished the Mary Sue’s of the world, but condemns their children to a similar life of dreary prospects. This is the central domestic issue facing the United States: Not just poverty per se, although it is inextricably linked to the decline in social capital, but the division of our country in two, not just the haves and have-nots, but the have-everythings and the have-nothings. One group of Americans are highly educated, enroll their kids in Little League and drive them to piano lessons, send them to good schools, know their parents, and are flourishing in countless ways. Across the tracks, the Mary Sue’s of the world grown up with bad nutrition, attend bad schools, watch too much television and do not develop social skills or outside interests, and live in places where the loss of blue collar jobs means they will not be able to afford the decent lives, materially, that their great-grandparents did.

I have not yet read Putnam’s book but I will predict already that it will be the most important book of the year. In the article, Gene Sperling calls Putnam “President Obama’s Pikkety,” but Putnam is decidedly bipartisan in his outreach and was a welcome guest at the Bush White House too, and recently met with Cong. Paul Ryan. Additionally, as Carr points out in the Post article, Putnam is also not the only person on the stage calling attention to the light of the poor: There is also Pope Francis. Still, even with one of America’s leading scholars teaming up with the Successor of Peter, I worry that the problem Putnam is diagnosing may be more resistant to change than the spread of ISIS. The collapse of a culture is often so quick, but building it back up can be a long and arduous task. And, the American culture that saw all kids as “our kids,” in which mothers claimed authority over any child in the neighborhood, in which the “we” in “we the people” was still alive and in the air we breathe, that culture has been bought sold by the consumer culture. For all the talk about the decline of the family because of the sexual revolution, it is the decline of the family because of the success of the consumer revolution that seems the greater, or at least the deeper, difficulty.

These two issues – the rise of Islamicist extremism abroad and the socio-cultural divide at home – should be the issues that dominate our political debate for the next two years. Once we get past the circus, maybe we will be able to discuss some real solutions to these problems. I wish I could say I am optimistic, but I am not. Both parties seem stuck in narratives that turn serious issues into caricatures. There is nothing that screams “coping with future problems” like the prospect of a Bush running against a Clinton. And, the lure of consumer culture continues to attract a new generation of kids seeking instant gratification every hour of every day. I do not like to say that things must get worse before they can get better. That is a Leninist sentiment. But, really, are there grounds for optimism? Pope Francis says we must make room for God to surprise us. I am hoping to be surprised.  





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