The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Friday, August 22, 2014

ISIL Barbarism

We have in recent years (decades?) so misused the language that it has become a challenge to comprehend exactly what some folks are trying to say. The commonplace is too often described using out-of-this-world superlatives and the truly outrageous, well, it's awesome, man. And so we're left with few words to describe adequately the activities of a collection of terrorists like ISIL. ISIL seems to recognize this and has made effective use of new media. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth many times more.

The recent beheading, on video, of an American journalist, James Foley, was turned into a viral YouTube spectacle. This says it all. (By the way, as an aside, why would anyone want to watch this gruesome video? I certainly won't, but I suspect I'm in the minority. ) Just keep in mind that this atrocity simply mirrors what these barbarians have done to so many others in both Syra and Iraq. In some strange way, then, the murder of Mr. Foley, horrendous as it was, pales when compared to the widespread enslavement and slaughter of Christian, Yazidi, and even Muslim women and children. How many of these precious innocents were beheaded, shot, and even crucified simply because of their religious beliefs? At least Mr. Foley had a choice. As a journalist he chose to travel to Syria to report on the civil war raging in that country. His kidnapping by ISIL, while not a certainty, was still a possibility. This doesn't at all mitigate the horror of his death, and it certainly doesn't excuse those who murdered him. I mention this only because the media coverage of James Foley's death has been non-stop, but how much have we heard of the hundreds, probably thousands, of faceless and nameless ISIL victims?

James Foley
I can understand the media focus on the death of one of their own. To some he was a colleague, and because he was an American his death is also a story with domestic, political overtones. But the real tragedy in Syria and Iraq -- and I believe James Foley would have agreed -- is the continual slaughter of those who resist ISIL as it terrorizes in the name of a false god. For example, read this report of the murder of an entire village of Yazidis -- over 600 people -- because one village elder refused to convert to the ISIL brand of Islam. And then read this story describing 11 elderly Iraqi Christians who also refused to convert and courageously told the ISIL thugs they would rather die. They were spared. Such stories are seldom reported by the mainstream media. Another story you won't find in the New York Times or on CNN is one describing Islam's centuries-old penchant for beheading those who resist. Here's a story on Catholic Online that does just that. (Warning: at the end of the article there are some very gruesome photos.)

We shouldn't underestimate ISIL. They have access to hundreds of millions of dollars that they will use to finance their vicious jihad. Thanks to the Iraqi army they are well-equipped with modern American weapons. The civil war in Syria has provided the training and experience they need to wage their war on the world. And perhaps most worrisome their ranks are filled with hundreds of jihadists who hold valid passports from the UK, USA, and Western European countries. They will return all too soon to bring their horrific form of terror to the West. I rarely find myself in agreement with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, but his comments on ISIL yesterday were instructive:
"This is beyond anything that we've seen...ISIL is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded....So we must prepare for everything. And the only way you do that is that you take a cold, steely, hard look at it ... and get ready."
Get ready, indeed. Secretary Hagel was joined by chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who added, "This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated."

About our absent strategy for dealing with and defeating ISIL, the secretary and the general also said some remarkably inane things, but at least they seem to appreciate the nature of the threat. Perhaps in time they will be able to convince the president to address it.

All of this brought to mind what Christopher Dawson wrote, describing the barbarian invasions suffered by the late Roman Empire:
"To pagan and Christian alike it seemed the end of all things -- in St. Jerome's words, 'the light of the world was put out and the head of the Roman Empire was cut off'...It is a tendency of modern historians to minimize the importance of the invasions, but it is difficult to exaggerate the horror and suffering which they involved. It was not war as we understand it, but brigandage on a vast scale exercised upon an unwarlike and almost defenseless population. It meant the sack of cities, the massacre and enslavement of the population and the devastation of the open country. In Macedonia the Roman envoys to Attila in 448 found the once populous city of Naissus empty save for the dead. In Afrida, if a city refused to surrender, the Vandals would drive their captives up to the walls and slaughter them in masses so that the stench of their corpses should render the defenses untenable." [Christopher Dawson, Medieval Essays, p. 50]
Dawson goes on to quote St. Jerome who wrote the following early in the 5th century when the barbarian attacks were just beginning:
"The mind shudders when dwelling on the ruin of our day. For twenty years and more, Roman blood has been flowing ceaselessly over the broad countries between Constantinople and the Julian Alps, where the Goths, the Huns and the Vandals spread ruin and death...How many Roman nobles have been their prey! How many matrons and maidens have fallen victim to their lust! Bishops live in prison, priests and clerics fall by the sword, churches are plundered, Christ's altars are turned into feeding-troughs, the remains of the martyrs are thrown out of their coffins. On every side sorrow, on every side lamentation, everywhere the image of death."
Although it's highly unlikely we in the United States will face the kind of devastating attacks suffered by the 5th-century Romans, others throughout the world are already experiencing exactly that. I expect it will continue to spread.

The early medieval world survived the attacks of the barbarians and ended up converting them to Christianity. Of course those early Christians were a people of faith. May our faith be as strong.

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