observations and opinion
The first time I saw Jihadists set people on fire, was around 2 p.m. EST September 11, 2001 when – after hours of avoiding the TV footage the whole world had seen – I witnessed the repeat video of the second plane hitting the World Trade Centre. I gasped in horror – genuine horror. As that jetliner shredded into slices of tin, its heavy load of fuel ignited into a monstrous orange ball. Everyone on board, everyone in that part of the tower, was simultaneous ripped to pieces and set alight. For us all to see.
Fourteen years later, the Jihadists are still doing it. Only now they’re down to one man at a time –with film crews set up in advance. No longer able to steal airplanes full of innocents, they shot down a Syrian jet and paraded the pilot to a macabre, horrific, fiery end – in a cage. This staged horror show, with masked gunmen lined up for the prisoner to trudge past on his way to death, was very professionally produced as a video.
Don’t watch it all the way through, if you care for your psyche. I saw it up to the moment one of the terrorists knelt and lit the streak of gasoline on the ground. The pilot stood stoic and stony-faced, almost superhumanly dignified, behind bars, as the flame ran across the ground to the cage. Then I stopped watching, because I know what came next and didn’t need – or believe I should – be witness to it.
Observing or imagining these horrors – whether it is the German soldiers shooting Jews into a trench, or the naked innocents trooped into a room to be gassed, the passengers on United Flight 175 waiting for some unknown end, or the kneeling captive about to have his head sawed off by an ISIS man – it is impossible not to wonder: what is the victim thinking? How did Moaz al-Kasabeh, the Jordanian pilot burned alive in a cage, maintain his composure? WHY did he maintain his composure? Did he think it was a ruse, that he could somehow get through it and they wouldn’t light the ground on fire beneath him?
I have wondered and never understood, yet it may be the case that a person is so desperate to live that he imagines he will not die, believes the end is not coming, even as the person in front of him takes a bullet in the head or a masked ghoul puts a torch to a stream of gasoline. It is, perhaps, impossible to accept the reality of such horror.
Or perhaps the reality is so obvious and so infuriating, that the victim – Moaz al-Kasabeh for example – will not give in to it. Maybe the pilot was just so angry at his tormenters that he refused to surrender his dignity. When I look at, and remember, the man behind those bars, that is what I see.
Bearing witness to the burning man video, beyond the remarkable stoicism and calm of a man moments from death, was the fascinating sight of the men killing him. Who the hell are they? Who is holding that camera? Who is editing that footage? What the hell is going on here?
Standing still, masked like the cowards they are, and holding guns for the benefit of an audience at home – the ISIS men are props. Mannequins of murder. What goes on in those heads? Did they plant trees when they were boys, float paper boats in streams, hold hands with a girl and dream of her all night? Do they ache for the simple love of family, for a good meal in a clean bowl, for a starry night where laughter and music floats up to the sky? The answer to all those questions is “yes”. So how did any man – never mind thousands of men – become so gutted, so hollow, so broken – that this thing they call their lives could have settled upon them, like a disease?
You have a sense of how they got there: empty lives, disconnection, a tinge of sociopathology in the brain, the wrong crowd, the anxious twisting need to burst out – to smash something – we have known these men through all eternity. We know some personally. They join gangs, shift aimlessly through dead end jobs, rage inside, hit their girlfriends, hit their kids. They become Nazis, Klansmen, pull masks over their faces at G8 street protests. Sometimes they become lawyers or doctors or bureaucrats, stuck behind desks, dreaming of mayhem. Sometimes they get fired from the post office, or lose a parking spot, or visit a movie theatre, or go massacre two dozen kids in a Connecticut school One may be sitting next to you right now.
They were bored, bored, bored but now they’ve have found the ultimate “Fight Club” – ISIS. Willing to trade their aimless, pointless lives for thrills and the chance of unbridled violence, they’re signing up by the thousands – many of them “converts” to Islam (you know they’d join the Margaret Atwood Fan Club if it afforded them the opportunity to punch people, so let’s not get carried away with their religious affiliation). And of course, there are also true religious zealots among them. Whatever they believe however, their distinguishing feature is what they are prepared to do – almost anything – if they can get away with it.
And with ISIS they’re not just getting away with it, they’re being supported, encouraged and organized to do it. By “it” I mean just about any horrific violent act you can imagine, to anyone weaker, unarmed or simply available. They do it because they like to do it. Which makes them the perfect tools of the devil. These men are the pit bulls cultivated and trained for the dog fighting ring.
They dove into it, turned themselves over to it, and disappeared into it. They gave up the ways of human life and adopted a new culture – the cult of death, of cold cruelty. Of terror. And now these faceless creatures, these robots full of blood, aren’t living anymore. They are dead inside, or dying. They must feel it. That makes their deeds meaningless and enables them to push farther, farther, farther. I assure you, as certain as there is soil beneath my feet tonight – I know and so do you, that these people will do more, worse than you can imagine, worse than we have seen – to every victim they can trap and point a camera at. You know it.
And they know it too. The ISIS men have shucked off the last stitch of humanity and become masses of muscles and bones, hinged to motiveless intent, deployed to enact disgusting events. There’s no limit anymore because they’ve already done so much – there is no earthly or other reprieve for their souls. They’re zombies, the walking dead. Almost dead, anyhow. That is all they have become – “extras” in a horror movie until the day comes, when one of them gets a starring role.
And what of the star of the show, the one who knelt and torched the ground that lit the flame that engulfed Moaz? What of the man who put bullets in the necks of Jewish schoolgirls, who raped their mothers and then murdered them? Or the man who pushed machetes through the stomachs of Tutsi villagers in Rwanda. who massacred boys in Croatia – what of that man? What does he wake up to tomorrow morning? Is there anything left inside him that wants not to wake up there? Does he want to go somewhere else?
I hope so. What I hope is that inside every ISIS man there is still some grain of humanity, scratching away on the inside of his heart. I hope it torments him, if not in his waking hours then in his sleep. I hope he dreams that he is trapped – as his soul is already trapped for eternity – in a cage of flames. And when the ISIS man awakens, sick and bathed in sweat, I hope he dreads the day so much he wishes he was dead. And I hope that his terrible dreams, and his fleeting wish, will soon come true.
And I hope that we wake up too, before it is too late – before we find ourselves inside that cage. Remember: Moaz al-Kasabeh died in it, so that you didn’t have to.