Today the sound of the unsheathed scimitar gives rhythm to the videos produced by ISIS. Watching the videos’ merciless acts we ask ourselves “How is it possible a human being can generate such level of horror? How is it possible a person with a family, with dreams and skills has come to the point that the life of another human being is worth nothing?
The nexus of desensitization, dehumanization, and disengaged youth is a lethal combination. The desensitization to violence through repeated exposure via sight (e.g., videos, computer games, television) and sound, (e.g., music) has been a topic of research for several decades, with the majority of findings indicating that there is a reduced reaction to the stimuli – thus desensitization. When this is combined with the dehumanizing process, which also is found in the same media, it appears logical that those who are less sensitive to violence would be easier and more quickly moved through the process of dehumanizing another group of people. Dehumanization is the process of demonizing the perceived enemy or systematically reducing one group of people to a level of subhuman or animal, which allows the humans to treat the subhumans as dangerous game animals to be hunted and exterminated. The dehumanizing process has been used for centuries to legitimize unspeakable acts of violence on one group of people by another group (e.g., Nazi’s against the Jews and the Roma; Khmer Rouge against the “enemies” of the revolution; Hutus’s against Tutsis during Rwandan Civil War). But who does these acts? Who is most likely to join in the hunt? Each person has a “pile of empathy” in their mind, which helps them react appropriately when violent acts are observed or heard. Those whose “pile” is already eroded would be the easiest to persuade to join in the hunt. In other words, those who are already disengaged from their family and greater society are more likely to grasp at the promises of belonging and contributing to a group. When the desensitization process joined with dehumanizing rhetoric meets the disengaged and searching youth, and significant protective factors are not available, a lethal result may be looming.
Recruiters use various methods to pass their message. For example, they may use beheadings and crucifixions in the media to demonstrate power. These shocking images serve multiple purposes, including the step by step desensitization where horror becomes acceptable. A toxic mix of medieval and video games imaginary is building an army. The individual dehumanization process is conducted through a series of incremental steps: the call of duty videos are followed by training and participation in collective acts of brutality. This is the initiation package offered to these searching youth.
The best candidates to join an army are those who have not yet discovered their path in life, those who need to belong to something, those who feel anxiety and stress about the future and those who feel angry and powerless because of injustice and suffering in many countries of the world. There are those who think they need to do something truly meaningful and unique: becoming a hero. Often they feel compelled to embrace together both a cause and a gun. Who are those best candidates? Certainly young people meet the profile.
“So take up arms, take up arms, O soldiers of the Islamic State! And fight, fight (…) raise your ambitions, O soldiers of the Islamic State! For your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue…” the words of the self-appointed caliph of the self proclaimed Islamic state attempt to appeal to this lack of belonging and desire to make a mark. Similarities can be seen with the thoughts of other brutal dictators:
“To avoid parents being a retrograde force in the home, we must arm the child with an inner light so that he can repel this influence. Some fathers have escaped our hold for various reasons, but a young boy is still in our hands… The family unit must comply with centralised customs, ruled by revolutionary positions and traditions.” Saddam Hussain
“He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future (…). The weak must be chiselled away. I want young men and women who can suffer pain. A young German must be as swift as a greyhound, as tough as leather, and as hard as Krupp’s steel.” Adolf Hitler
Listening to the words of some of the indoctrinated youth of today also provides a chilling reminder of the success of the rhetoric.
“All my brothers, come to jihad,” says a fighter, who has been identified as British. “Feel the honour we are feeling, feel the happiness that we are feeling.”
They come from different places and background they speak different languages, they have different reasons to fight but finally find their answer and mission in an ideology that reminds us the one of Heart of Darkness “Exterminate all the brutes”! Suppress who is not part of the group of enlightened, those who have a different ideology, a different religion, or simply do not want to join!
There is a striking contrast in some of the images which are posted by ISIS, portraying the victim and the executioner. The victim is often a humanitarian aid worker or a journalist and often the executioner is a violent extremist. The similarities are many: both of them young, both devoted to their cause, both recruited over the internet and travelling from afar to assist in the cause and both believing that they are doing something to make the world a better place. After this, the contrast could not be clearer: the victim will be remembered for devoting their life to protect and shed light on the situation of the most vulnerable, while the executioner will be remembered for having murdered an innocent person in cold-blood.
What if we start accepting some of the responsibility for the horror we are witnessing in many parts of the world with different extremists groups marching against civilians? If so, we, as a society, must address the root causes of the problem. We must work even harder against the rituals perpetuated on the internet. Unfortunately, until now while the global community engaged in discussion on human rights, development and peace, weapons and financial resources continued to flood into the hands of militants.
Those who use these weapons and resources and violate human rights are as guilty as those who collaborate in business with them. Both groups should face tangible sanctions, investigations and criminal trials.
Let us follow the example of the young people who are putting their life at stake to bring food and water to vulnerable populations. As a community, let us engage our youth to ensure they are seeking a sense of belonging or answering a call to “honor” that is peaceful.