It's the Ebola panic all over again.
Except they're calling it ISIS this time.
OMG! OMG! We're all going to die!
Cable TV news networks won't be happy until they've got the whole country hiding in the basement, glued to Wolf Blitzer's lugubrious team of terrorism experts warning of theoretical, if not downright imaginary, threats to America's shopping malls and vital fast-food industry, while square-jawed pundits on Fox News and MSNBC debate nomenclature and counsel manly resolve.
Hardly a day passes in this country without a mass shooting episode or a toddler-involved homicide, yet ISIS has them in a tizzy. Even "Hardball's" excitable Chris Matthews has caught war fever.
Sometimes I wish they had the collective intelligence of my wife's personal kitten. Martin's an orange tabby the big dogs found abandoned on a gravel road in the woods last year. Now that he's too big to sit on her head comfortably, he sometimes watches ball games with me.
Mostly, he ignores the TV. But the other day, Martin got so excited during a Razorback basketball game that he jumped from the ottoman and tried to capture a player running across the screen. I believe he pounced three times before concluding that what looked like prey was a two-dimensional illusion.
Martin's career as a basketball fan ended abruptly.
Clearly, ISIS is no mere illusion. But it's definitely more of a TV show than an existential threat to national security. However, when I see polls suggesting that a growing majority of Americans now supports sending ground troops back into Iraq (and Syria?) to fight yet another ultimately unwinnable war against "evildoers," I wonder if we're capable of learning anything as a nation.
Yes, the organization's sickening "snuff videos," as blogger Digby aptly calls them, are uniquely infuriating. Sadistically choreographed and slickly produced, ISIS's stonings, beheadings and live burnings elicit exactly the fear and revulsion they're meant to. The immediate impulse is to exterminate all the brutes. Until I gave it 10 seconds' thought, I could even sympathize with an Arkansas politician's call to nuke the SOBs.
But look at it this way: The videos are also symptomatic of madness and increasing desperation. As President Obama has suggested, ISIS is clearly more of a criminal death cult than a military organization. For a Western analogy, think Jim Jones or David Koresh in the wilderness.
What's more, for all the messianic delusions in ISIS's primitive theology, as explained in Graeme Wood's epic exegesis in The Atlantic, the organization has already checkmated itself.
"Much of what the group does looks nonsensical," Wood explains, "except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse ... They refer derisively to 'moderns.'"
Rather like cracked "End Times" thinkers in our own tradition, ISIS believes that it can force God's hand and bring about the apocalypse by re-establishing a Muslim "caliphate," and then luring the "crusaders" into battle.
A glance at the map, however, reveals that ISIS has basically conquered all the thinly populated desert territory it can reasonably hold. It can maintain a semblance of control only through stark brutality and terror. It's basically a rag-tag, pickup-based militia lacking any means of attacking the United States unless we make it easy for them by re-invading Iraq.
ISIS has no air force, no navy, no real artillery or armored brigades apart from captured Iraqi gear it can't effectively service or repair. The Turks could crush ISIS whenever they choose, but choose not to act for fear of empowering the hated Assad regime in Syria and/or its Iranian Shiite allies (themselves protecting Baghdad).
Meanwhile, President Obama's tactics for confronting ISIS may not be very exciting in the action/adventure film sense, but they're nevertheless surrounded on all sides.
Writing in Vox, Zack Beauchamp cites a consensus of informed observers: "If you want to understand what's happening in the Middle East today, you need to appreciate one fundamental fact: ISIS is losing its war for the Middle East."
U.S. air strikes have blunted the terrorists' ability to launch effective attacks. Many are foreign fighters drawn by the lure of charismatic ideology and seemingly dramatic victories who now find themselves far from home, "outgunned, outnumbered and friendless."
The very theological certitude that attracts young jihadists has also made the movement strategically dumb. Attacking the Kurds was criminally stupid. Drawing Jordan into the fight could also prove a fatal error.
"ISIS has staked its entire political project on one theory," Beauchamp explains. "They are the true revival of the early Islamic caliphate, destined not only to maintain and expand their theocratic state but to bring on the apocalypse. Once you understand that, ISIS's blunders look less like miscalculations and more like inevitable results of its animating ideology."
An ideology that cannot but fail, if the United States has the political maturity to remain calm until that happens.