When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted,
and at the sound of the trumpet,
when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed;
so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city.
They devoted the city to the Lord
and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it
— men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.
(Fall of Jericho, Joshua 6.20-21)
If [you will] not [surrender], why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
(Shakespeare's Henry V threatening the town of Harfleur)
I don't watch much TV news, and what I do watch is on a screen at a fair distance from an elliptical trainer in the exercise room in my condo complex; so I tend to get the general gist and pattern of things but not always the details. One general pattern is that talking heads on "ISIS" — the guys trying to revive the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria and then the rest of the Dar al-Islam — the talking heads discussing ISIS, now and then fall into talking about these guys as psychopaths, sadists, thugs, and various varieties of madmen.
That is not a good idea.
Now I fear ISIS as much as most folk not directly threatened (or a lot more), and I will note immediately that any group of over 10,000 men will include a fair number of murderers and brutes, and State-sponsored or NGO militaries offering weapons and immunity to hurt and kill other people will have far more than a random number of participants who like to hurt and kill people.
Still, if Hamlet has a point in warning his Mom against laying the flattering unction upon her soul that he is mad — however much Hamlet fails as a paragon of robust mental health — even so we should be careful about inferring mental aberration with ISIS and other terrorists.
If ISIS are (sic) sadists, they are different from the more statistically normal sort of sadists in consensual sexual interactions with masochists: for sure,
* the videos the different groups post to the web differ radically;
* it's doubtful that there's a significant ISIS subculture exchanging stories of getting aroused and/or whacking off ever or about anything, kinky or straight; and
* there is a crucial difference in occurrences of death, serious injury, wounding, or maiming between terrorists and a spanking club — or even between organized terrorists and your average serial killer.
If ISIS are thugs and assassins — and they are — it is thugs in a sense that includes the origin of the word in capital "T" Thugs as "an organized gang of professional assassins" and thieves operating for some six hundred years in India — and assassins as highly trained and indoctrinated murderers for a cult with religious and political goals (assassins the Wikipedia entry suggests might be usefully seen as the Knights Templar of Islam).
The murderous scoundrels of ISIS are, unsimply, a digital-age form of Holy Warriors of the type that have been with us since at least the time of Joshua son of Nun from the late Bronze Age (2nd millennium BCE), plus warriors, period, for most of human history.
Men do not need religious fanaticism to commit atrocities. They don't even need strong ideologies. Slavers and the Mongol Hordes were pretty much doing what they did when they killed and immiserated by the millions: business was business, and it was only fairly late that the more respectable descendants of slavers came up with racism to make grand theft on a grand scale more respectable — I'm oversimplifying here, but the point is valid — and it has only been recently that the mass murders of aggressive warfare needed justification: Alexander the Great was "great" because he killed people from Asia Minor into what is now Pakistan and took their lands and property and made whole peoples submit to him. "Back in the day," as we say, conquerors bloody well bragged about their body counts and could be teased about whose was bigger: "When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with timbrels and lyres. As they danced, they sang: 'Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands'" (1 Samuel 18.6-7).
And unto Shakespeare's day (ca.1600 CE) "warlike" was a compliment for a person or people, and Henry V in both history and in theatrical presentation was probably seen by most Englishfolk as an unambiguous hero for going out and killing French soldiers — although things got complex when Henry had rich POW's killed and maybe got ambguous when he threatened to spit infants upon pikes. (One can say without flattery that Shakespeare's views were rather more nuanced than those of your average Elizabethan groundling, or Duke.)
Still, fanaticism helps raise the body-counts and misery indexes, and no fanaticism is stronger than that old time religion when combined with variations on modern nationalism.
And ISIS is moving into an ideal world for fanaticism: a world full of physically and/or psychologically and spiritually displaced people — including many young men — looking for meaning, some sort of goal. ISIS can offer that: the ideal of the Caliphate, Islam returned to its proper glory, individuals returned to community and a meaningful life.
Oddly, perhaps grotesquely, one of the most important ideas for understanding 21st-century Islamist extremists, and fanatics of other faiths (religious and otherwise), may be a 19th-century woman's comment on a 16th-century Spanish mystic, George Eliot's comments on St. Teresa of Ávila in Eliot's Prelude to Middlemarch (1871-72): "Theresa's passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life [….] Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self."
ISIS will probably be crushed as too extreme for its time. But there is a good chance that it will prepare the ground for a Mass Movement to follow, one that promises and threatens to"change the world, re-arrange the world," and (to the horror of those of us who grew up on Sixties protest) return it to a past-tense eutopia of religious purity and purpose.
The Holy Warriors of ISIS are a deadly peril not because they are madmen — psychopaths and sadists and thugs — but because they are bringing warfare back to what may be its barbarous norm, and doing so as heavily armed and fanatically dedicated idealists.