-- The Times carried a pretty disturbing piece today about how ISIS manipulates people on the internet into joining them—wasn’t sure if you saw it.
-- No, I didn’t. What was it that particularly struck you?
-- I don’t know – I guess it was just the seeming impossibility of it. They find some person on the other side of the world who’s basically decent – someone who if you met them you’d say was about as far away as they could get from wanting to murder and terrorize people. And by the time they’re done with her they’ve gotten her around to thinking it’s okay to cut people’s heads off and set people on fire just for being tourists or aid workers or journalists trying to report on human rights. But then there’s an even wilder contrast that follows. There's that first impression of total impossibility, but then the fact that by the time you’ve finished reading, it all makes a perverse kind of sense.
-- Hmm… I guess to me it never seemed that hard to believe. They play on people’s weaknesses, don’t they? It’s hard to overstate the power -- the emotional power -- of meeting a friendly and interested stranger, who seems to want to talk only to you -- especially someone who has some whiff about him of danger and difference, who promises to bring something fresh and exciting into your life. It’s rather like falling in love, isn’t it?
-- Sure, and so there’s no great puzzle about the chocolates and Hallmark cards they send. The fact that they draw lonely people in with bait is plain enough. But what I can’t figure out is why people don't leave once they see the hooks at the other end. Instead, the hooks seem to affect them like more bait.
-- Well by that point they’re too far in to make an easy exit, right? They’ve let a lot of the other relationships in their lives dangle while they pursued this one, and broken a lot of promises. They’re ashamed to face people who told them they were wrong, and they’re not sure they can repair those bonds. Meanwhile, the ISIS people are still there and still willing to talk. They may have shown their hooks, they may be making ever more impossible and terrifying demands on you, asking you to endorse killing or to kill people yourself, or to lie and deceive others the way you have been lied to and deceived, but they are very much still there -- and still interested. That’s the key.
-- Maybe so, but you’d at least expect people to realize by then that they were prisoners, wouldn't you? You’d think it would be impossible for them by that point to feel anything but hatred for their captors, even if they wanted not to. Instead, they’re still checking their social media accounts every few seconds, from the sound of it, hoping for word from ISIS. The situation they’re in looks to us from the outside like daily torture, but they go on collaborating in it and seeking it out. There’s something more to that than just lonely people lacking other options. There must be some gratification people get from the cruelty itself, from the insane demands being made upon them, from the lunatic “tests” of loyalty being ratcheted up in difficulty every day, so they start to crave it – even if it’s all illusory.
-- Well, let’s just say it wouldn’t be the first time in history, and you wouldn’t be the first person to notice this tendency of human nature. Back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, there were always two kinds of Stalinist intellectuals in the West. There was the fellow-traveler circa 1932, who thought Stalin was somehow a great boon to democracy, but who bailed as soon as he finally got around to reading those news accounts that his more skeptical friends clipped for him and left on his desk – the ones he had sniffily chalked up to pure sensationalism and Hearst propaganda before seeing them himself – the ones about the famines and the show trials. He got out early. The second kind, though, was bound to stick it out with the Party for another two decades at least. And it wasn’t because the second was a worse kind of person, or a dumber one. He might well have been superior to the first in those and other respects. Yet he ended up being the one who, even when his friends were being hanged or disappeared into concentration camps or he was himself meeting one of those fates, never doubted in his heart his love for Comrade Stalin, and believed that if only Comrade Stalin knew, he would share his tears with him, that it must all be some mistake, and that he would go on lying and murdering for Stalin if only the gentle comrade would show him the slightest twinkle of favor and kind smile in greeting. “I love you more because you flee from me [...] / And cherish your unbending cruelty,” (McGowan trans.) as Baudelaire said to his mistress. You’ll have to pardon the metaphor, but amorous language – if that’s the word for it – is not out of place here. Arthur Koestler recalled his seven years as a Communist activist as like the seven that Jacob spent toiling in Laban’s fields to win the hand of Rachel, only to find at the end of his contract that he had been married to the wrong bride. But you see what I mean? There wasn’t a middle option here. They either balked at the first sign of sickness, or else they entered so fully into their sickness that they viewed it as health.
-- Giving me more examples and quotations only deepens the mystery, I hope you know. Suppose you’re right that this has happened many times and in many places before. That still doesn’t answer the question of why.
-- Well, there’s always the set up of the courting phase, isn’t there, and then the desire ever afterward to return to it? Indeed, that's why that part’s so important. The recruiter has first to convince you of the genuineness of his love. He has to leave such deep impressions of joy in you that later, when he suddenly turns cold like Baudelaire’s muse, suddenly starts to demand of you the bizarre and the inexcusable, suddenly doubts your faith and devotion and asks that you make ever greater sacrifices on his behalf, you are ready to do so in the hope that you can restore the lost Eden. The memory of the old time, before you knew the guy online was from ISIS and that he wanted you to murder or to condone murder, when all you knew about him was that he wanted to know all about you – is so vivid in your mind you would do anything to get it back. Most of all, it gives you something to do, and a reason to do it, which is no small thing. Most of us wake each morning with the thought of coffee, then of a shower, then of work, then of sleep. Living for us is like walking over the lip of a bottomless mineshaft and hoping that some unseen workman is laying planks in front of us fast enough to keep us from falling. If you were to ask yourself in this condition too many questions about where you are going and why, you’d likely induce vertigo. We get by in such a universe as adults more often than not only because we have learned to trust in that workman. We have lived long enough to know, or at least to have reason enough to expect, that the planks will keep on appearing in time for one's next footfall. The downside is having to accept not seeing them all in advance, and realizing that one’s reasons for acting moment to moment may vary from the transcendent to the petty. The chase after the fleeting love of comrade Stalin or the coy mistress of ISIS, though—that’s something to be assured of – that’s a ready-made, one-gulp courage to be, a reason to face existence that seems "safer" than the unforeseen cues and obscure detritus of the day’s events. So what looks to us like torture – because it is torture – may also seem to those who undergo it the most vivid experience of vitality they have ever enjoyed. By comparison to it, their former life, the pre-ISIS life, the life lived on the thin path over the abyss, seems to them a dead life, populated only by “insects […] scuttling, hurrying, intent […] upon some plan or scheme or hope they are hugging to themselves, their reason for living another day,” as a character says in an Updike novel, who has made his own voyage from the dead life to the realm of vitality and back again. The person who has been recruited does not yet know the subtler and less immediate vindications of the life of uncertainty and trust most of us must lead. She does not yet know that when she escapes from her mental captivity, if she ever does, she will not cherish the memory of any stage of the horror she has undergone, not even the parts she had thought at the time were paradisiacal. One phase of it all will be inseparable from the other, and she will recall her recruitment as if some alien self had taken control of her body – a foreign object that left behind it memories – too many and too vivid—of what that other self said and did, but never a conviction of identity with the person she is now, or with the person she was before.
-- It’s a hair-raising tale you spin, if true. You know, I consider myself pretty anti-war generally, but after thinking about all this, I can't say I would feel so bad about our military bombing these people– given the way they prey on innocent people.
-- I wouldn’t be so confident in drawing the line between where the victims stop and the predators begin. Whoever’s doing the recruiting was no doubt recruited in precisely the same way today's victims are. Their lying and dissimulation and cruelty -- the acts that appear from the outside almost inhuman-- may only be so many “proofs of loyalty and devotion" imposed upon them from above. They are captive to the same sickness, and suffer the same injuries, as their victims. And as for this innocent Mary Sue we’ve been conjuring—who’s to say she won’t soon be doing to another unsuspecting web surfer exactly what she has been undergoing herself, out of “loyalty,” out of “love,” and all for a “good cause.” I guess I'm trying to say that we may all be a lot more vulnerable to doing evil than we think we are, and a lot more of those who do evil are likewise the victims of it than we tend to believe.
-- Maybe so, but someone must be at the top of that awful pyramid you've drawn. Someone must be making the first “demands” and orchestrating the first tests of loyalty. Someone must be setting the whole death spiral spinning, that is. That person ought to die, I think, whoever he is.
--Maybe, but I'm not sure. I tend to think life, not death, is the only thing that can defeat this pathology.
--Well now you’re just preaching platitudes and sentimentalities.
-- Again, maybe so. But the whole nature of the sickness we're talking about is a love of death and a hatred of life, isn't it? Even though the appeal of it to people is that it offers them a kind of vitality. It is one of the more recondite puzzles of our nature that such great-- perhaps the greatest, or at least, the most easily bought, vitality can sit so close in us to annihilation, but it appears to be the case. Maybe it's because the hunger for a life-force that exceeds the limits of life can only result in disappointment, and then, if one does not recover from it, in a repudiation of existence. And that leads to an infatuation with death. Maybe the people who undergo this process even end up thinking that killing others and finally destroying themselves -- whether slowly, by an inward psychological consumption such as I've been describing, or else quickly, in a blaze of light – is somehow to do them and themselves a favor.
--Hearing you talk, you’d almost think you agreed with them. I’d be careful. Someone might get the impression from listening to you that this life really is a dead one, and this vitality you’re speaking of is really better after all, even if it comes at the price of death.
--They might think that, but they’d be wrong -- though I admit it would be hard to convince them of it until they could experience it for themselves, and feel their own emancipation and their return to the self they had been before ISIS – a self with whom they must reconcile through a process of mutual apology and forgiveness in just the same way they have to bind up their broken relationships with family and old friends. How could they know that the pains of those reunions, if borne, will ultimately prove worth it, when those pains are so hard to bear? Life is no “crystal stair,” says Langston Hughes, “It's had tacks in it, / And splinters, / And boards torn up,” but it happens to be the only stair we’ve been given. There is no smoother way. It is the only theater we have in which to experience even the hope of joy or the memory of wellbeing. That’s why those who escape from ISIS and from death are not tempted ever to go back. It’s not because they found life an easier thing than they thought it would be, once they have returned to it, or because when they look around them they no longer see any darkness or pits below. It’s because they’ve realized that whatever goodness and happiness there is or could be for the world can only exist within existence – a tautological point, but one so often forgotten, for all that. As another of Hughes’ characters says:
“So since I'm still here livin',
I guess I will live on.
I could've died for love--
But for livin' I was born.”
-- Meanwhile, though, as we eagerly await their resurrection, a whole lot of people are dying for love – dying for someone else’s so-called "love" for ISIS. Innocent people who have no part whatever in this disgusting dysfunction you’re talking about—they’re being killed because of some other person's morbid obsessions. What do you have to say about that?
-- I have nothing at all to say that can make that fact any less terrible than it is. All I can say is that victims become perpetrators and making yet more victims is no new thing, and that the only way to end it is at some point for one link in the chain to refuse to go on perpetrating. Life, not death, is the only thing that can kill ISIS.