You know what ISIS is? A bunch of politicians. People trying to build a power base. A bunch of guys who understand, as politicians have grasped since Sargon handed out blocks of cuneiform about how he really kicked Ur-Zababa's Akkadian ass, that war extends beyond swords, guns, tanks, and bombs. It includes press releases on really nice stationery, scratchy cassette tapes from a fictional cave, videos of old dudes walking in the mountains.
Of course James Foley's death is a tragedy. Of course it was a barbaric act. Of course the English Leather-scented narration was intended to generate a frisson of "Oh, they sound so civilized while acting so evil." Of fucking course it was meant to scare us.
Here's the super-secret strategy on how to handle it: Don't act scared.
Is ISIS planning to follow the al-Qaeda script for world domination? Eh, no. But let's say they are. So why don't you get bin Laden on the phone and ask him how poking big dogs with a pointy stick worked out for him. Unavailable? Well, check al-Qaeda's No. 2 man, or the other No. 2 guy, or that other No. 2 guy. Hmm.
The day before 9/11, al-Qaeda had a well-defined leadership structure, bank accounts around the world, a country where they were welcome to set up their terrorist jungle gyms, and dreams of world conquest. How much of that is left?
Sure, I can hear people preparing a flustered "but al-Qaeda is everywhere!," cut off the hydra's head, blah blah blah. The truth is that most people calling themselves al-Qaeda have as much relationship to the original organization as your pal who owns a storm trooper helmet has to the Star Wars Empire. Al-Qaeda in this, al-Qaeda in that, may contain plenty of people who are brutal, angry, and murderous, but they're not al-Qaeda. They use that name because they think it scares you. They'd probably like to hold fan conventions, but they don't, because ... drones.
Bin Laden (whose real relationship to 9/11 was more one of "Hey boss, these guys have a crazy idea, and if we put in a little start-up funding, it might pay off" rather than "You go left, I'll hike the ball, and the rest of you head for Boston") was a politician too. One who—because he didn't have a power base—was more interested in shaking things up to see what happened. Give those U.S. folks a quick hook to the chin, then kick them in the balls, and see if they doesn't crawl away and cry. Maybe we'll get a big slice of the ashes! Only ... no.
Still, you can't say that al-Qaeda wasn't extremely successful. Not at killing Americans. We managed more of that in Iraq. We manage to kill more Americans every year by refusing to wear helmets when we ride motorcycles. You could probably make a compelling case that corn syrup is more deadly to Americans than all the terrorists who ever lived.
Nope, where al-Qaeda really scored was in their ability to get us to hand over freedoms for an illusion of safety. The NSA reading your email and listening in on your phone, idiots mistaking a dropped t-shirt at the Mexican border for the prayer rug of invading Muslims, TSA workers who know you more intimately than your spouse. Those are bin Laden's victories.
That giant armored car in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and the 7,000+ machine guns local police now have on hand to point at American citizens? That's al-Qaeda's big win. That's the win we gave bin Laden. Because we were scared.
We demonstrated that we were a nation willing to do anything to preserve freedom. Even take away freedom.
So … ISIS. No. No matter how many speeches someone in ISIS' deliberately foggy chain of command gives about running the New World Caliphate out of a nice brownstone on the Hudson, they are not going to load their creaky arsenal into empty oil tankers and sail for our shores. They are not a threat. The things they are saying, the things they are doing—including the awful, brutal, terrible death of James Foley—are intended to sustain their people who are in the midst of a considerable fight, in which they are by no means assured of victory. Those words are also meant to make us think twice about getting in, while not riling us so badly that we shake off our entirely justifiable war-weariness and do a repeat of the last cycle.
But what if some of the people in ISIS don't really care about that? What if they are insane? Maybe they are. Probably some are. Though likely not the leadership, because insane people tend to not be so good at the logistics needed to march an army halfway across two countries. But even if they are all high-functioning nut jobs, so what? Louie Gohmert is demonstrably insane, but that doesn't mean I have to have my own armored car. They won't do anything, because they can't.
Let me say it again: Danger ISIS represents to the power, democracy, and freedom of the United States = 1 peanut. A moldy peanut. One with a nut missing. Danger from the United States reaction to ISIS provocations and the renewed drum-beat on the right = Barnum & Bailey's full set of elephants.
That's not to say that some bloodthirsty bozo isn't right now cobbling up a scheme to kill
XXX number of Americans by XXXXX a XXXXX into a XXXX. I'm a writer. I get paid (or at least, I did once upon a time) to think up scary things. Believe me, I can think of two or three doozies when it comes to things that you could pull off with all-too-common materials. How likely is it that a genuine ISIS cell is hiding in the United States lining up, let's say, zeppelins of death right now? Very, very, very unlikely. So unlikely that even planning for it would prove we're the ones who are insane. Funding for systems to destroy incoming asteroids should come way before that (though probably ISIS does finish ahead of funding for systems to tackle incoming dinosaurs who slip through a time portal. By a nose.).
Oh, and please [your name here] in [some place], Iowa, don't delude yourself that the local Tassel Festival is the perfect place to attack because no one is guarding it. First, no one is guarding it because no one cares about it, including terrorists, and second, your local police force probably already has more armor on hand than the Germans used to overrun Belgium. Do not line up to panic just because Hagel and McCain and half the United States Senate feels that KBR and Lockheed-Martin are overdue for a really good pay day.
Just calm down. Find a coffee shop. Eat a scone (cinnamon, try the cinnamon), and in the timeless words of Douglas Adams, Don't Panic. Trust me. Your country really needs you in this time of peril. It needs you to refuse ISIS a victory, by refusing to play this game. Again.