On Feb. 4, the Islamic State released a video showing a Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kaseasbeh, being burned alive. The appalling footage sparked a fierce response from the Jordanian government. Within 48 hours, Jordan’s military launched a massive air strike campaign against ISIS. Jordanian state TV even ran footage of Jordanian fighter planes lifting off and destroying ISIS targets. With triumphant music blasting in the background, the reaction is textbook military propaganda — the kind that would almost certainly be condemned if produced by the American armed forces.
Analysts, bloggers and politically conscious Yale students have been quick to point out the obvious: Jordan is responding to a video designed to provoke shock and terror with an unrestrained call to militarism. Meanwhile, the same right-wing pundits who supported America’s overreaction to 9/11 are now praising Jordan for a similarly haphazard turn to war in the face of terrorism.
I sympathize and agree with these criticisms. If the past decade has taught us anything, it is that blunt instruments of force rarely solve problems in the Middle East.
Yet, before everyone on the far left (read: half of Yale) rushes to condemn Jordan and mock Fox News’s ignorance of geopolitical disputes, I have a request: Watch the video first.
There are no words to describe seeing a man burned alive, surrounded by cheering onlookers, just as there are no words to describe the sight of the World Trade Center collapsing in the heart of New York City. These images incite violence for a reason. ISIS knows that showing you the face of a man about to die, invokes both empathy and fear. It knows that showing you someone of your same nationality makes the connection especially powerful. And it knows that you, a civilized human being, cannot stomach the sound or spectacle of this cold, precise instance of conflagration.
So it is probably correct, at least in one sense, to say Jordan has caved to terrorism. The country has allowed itself to be manipulated by a video whose sole purpose was manipulation. Uncoordinated revenge will not bring al-Kaseasbeh back. Uncoordinated revenge may help defeat ISIS, or it may just perpetuate the instability and terror that fuels it.
Though reason and empirical evidence tell us what is good policy, empathy and intuition tell us what are good morals. We do not come to know right and wrong through detached cost-benefit analysis. We can’t quantify goodness or model evil. These things only come to us through a shared recognition of our own — and thus others’— humanity.
Consider that Fox was the only American news outlet to publish the unedited video in its entirety. Consider that until now, every mainstream media organization has declined to show a yearlong string of beheadings and executions. And consider that you have most likely not gone looking for such graphic content, despite hearing about it every other week.
If we really want to curb our most counterproductive impulses in the face of terror, we need to understand where they originate. It is easy to read a headline in The New York Times and sigh at the West’s hypocritical rush to violence, and applaud the few mavericks who dare resist the mass consensus of jingoism. It is hard to watch a real, teary-eyed man be locked in a cage and set on fire. And it is impossible to watch such suffering without wanting those responsible to suffer for their crimes.
Yale — and much of America — has grown understandably mistrustful of unchecked interventionism. But old habits die hard for a reason. Fear is certainly one driver of uninformed, incautious military policy. But so, I would posit, is human decency. Perhaps the Jordanians are making a mistake in their rush to punish ISIS. But we too are making a mistake when we condescend world leaders for acting on an innate, human sense of justice.
I don’t necessarily suggest anyone watch the video. It’s beyond disturbing, and many analysts think Fox’s decision to publish it does more harm than good. But before espousing the virtues of pacifism or posting wise aphorisms about the past, think about what it would be like to see a member of your military burned alive. ISIS’s actions do not ipso facto recommend any particular course of action on our part or Jordan’s. They do, however, remind us of terrorism’s pernicious efficacy. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Aaron Sibarium is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com.