Are Beheadings an Existential Threat to America?

I’m sure a lot of other people are as baffled as I am at the huge, galvanizing effect IS has achieved with its use of social media broadcasts of hostage beheadings. Yes, it’s horrible, of course; so are all murders of innocents. But as Greg Sargent asks today, are the beheadings really an adequate justification for a reconvening of the Global War on Terrorism with all of its excesses and failures?

It would be nice if we could look at each new development in this conflict and make a rational assessment of what it actually changes, how it affects the United States, and what we should do, or not do, in response. But brutality overwhelms rationality, just as ISIS intends. A couple of hundred thousand Americans die every year from preventable medical errors and the response from the government amounts to “Gee, that’s too bad,” but all it takes is a few videos of brutal executions 6,000 miles away to spur a wholesale reexamination of American foreign policy….

To date, ISIS has killed four Americans, a horrible tragedy for those people and their families. But since the idea of the group’s threat to America is at this point entirely hypothetical, we should be as specific as we can when we talk about that threat. Do we think they’re going to try to hijack planes or send agents here to set off bombs? And if so, what do we need to do to counter those threats that we aren’t already doing? If we’re going to expand our military involvement in the Middle East, is there a way to do it that won’t create more problems than it solves?

I’ll put my cards right on the table: there is one, and only one, terrorist threat that rises to the level of an existential threat to the United States, and that’s nuclear terrorism. There are few rational measures I would not support that would significantly lower the risk of a dirty bomb going off in an American city. You get the sense right now, however, that all too many Americans would favor the atomization of the Muslim Middle East if it meant no more beheadings by IS. This is precisely the kind of public opinion tendency that swollen to a large majority by 9/11 led the Bush administration to decide to invade Iraq: not because there was any fresh justification for doing so, but because they knew could get away with it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.