Confronting Barbarism: ISIS, the United States and the Consequences of Torture

by Michael Meurer, Truthout | Op-Ed –

orange jump suits sketch

(Image: Troy Page / Truthout)

In a televised address on August 7, President Obama announced that he had ordered “targeted” US airstrikes in northern Iraq against the self-described Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the pretext of a humanitarian intervention to help stranded Kurds and US diplomatic staff in Erbil. In his address, Obama said, “I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.” Just 47 days later, on September 23, a new phase in the war on terror had been declared, and US bombing was expanded into Syria.

There is ample reason to believe that Obama’s August “humanitarian bombing” of ISIS targets in northern Iraq was equally about the protection of ExxonMobil and Chevron oil and gas production facilities in Erbil. It was a costly action. On August 19, US journalist James Foley was beheaded by ISIS in retaliation. On September 2, Steve Sotoloff, another US journalist, was beheaded by ISIS in a further act of retaliation. Both murders were accompanied by highly publicized beheading videos, with Foley and Sotoloff forced by ISIS to wear symbolic orange jumpsuits. A beheading video of British aid worker David Haines followed on September 13, with Haines also mockingly clad by his ISIS captors in an orange jumpsuit. President Obama’s new war in Syria began 10 days later with full Congressional backing. British Prime Minister David Cameron quickly endorsed US bombing and received parliamentary approval for Britain to join the US campaign in Iraq.

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy has labeled this Obama’s “YouTube war.” The carefully choreographed ISIS beheading videos, with their mocking use of orange jumpsuits, were a major factor driving both public opinion and Obama’s decision-making. The actions of ISIS jihadists are barbaric, but they represent something worse than publicized incidents of terrorist inhumanity. Yasser Munif, co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution, believes the moral taunting on the beheading videos was designed to lure the United States into wider war in the Islamic world, thereby elevating ISIS as the primary anti-American force in the region. It is as if the moral compass of the universe has gone tilt as the world descends into barbarism. The vertiginous sense of suspended morality is heightened by tens of millions of TV viewers and YouTube site visitors worldwide witnessing ISIS’s open and brutal mockery of the United States and United Kingdom on supposedly moral grounds as they commit murder for the camera.

During September, with the ISIS beheadings and United States drive to war as background, the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Obama administration have also been forced into a debate over how to respond to an August 27, District Court decision in New York ordering the release of 2,000 previously unpublished photos of US torture, brutality and death at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison and five other US detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been seeking release of the photos since 2004 in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. Obama and the DOD were opposed to the release of these photos, years before ISIS emerged, on the grounds that the images are so grisly, they would inflame anti-US sentiment in the Islamic world. However, with the ACLU’s litigation on the verge of success, the photos and the war against ISIS have clearly become interrelated.

There is already a huge element of the absurd in the Obama administration’s new war scenario that should provoke further debate about overall US policy in Central Asia. There are questions about the role that US and European actions played in incubating and arming ISIS in Syria, as well as clear evidence that Sunni distrust of the US-backed Shiite government in Baghdad has driven Iraqi Sunnis reluctantly into the hands of ISIS jihadists. There are open divisions and disagreements among national security experts in both parties and within Obama’s military team about threat assessment, tactics, timing and the need for ground troops. Many activists on the ground in Syria question the motivation and potential efficacy of US bombing in their country.

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