Why Does ISIS' Propaganda Work? Same Reason the Nazis' Did.

Terrorists exploit the “glamor of action movies, video games, and gangsta rap.” Counterterrorist efforts somehow have to counter that glamorization.


There are holes in how we talk about “holy war,” and about what stirs the hearts of extreme “isms.”

1. Jihadis and spa-lovers have similar motives, Virginia Postrel writes. Both seek glamor, and what gets glamorized can shape lives. Terrorists exploit the “glamor of action movies, video games, and gangsta rap.”

2. Anthropologist Scott Atran agrees — terrorism offers “a thrilling cause,” a “glorious and cool” way “to obtain meaning through self-sacrifice.”

3. Terrorist recruiters can spend hundreds of hours turning each prospect’s specific “frustrated aspiration ... into moral outrage.” (Meanwhile, material incentives can backfire on moral issues, jobs ≠ cure).

4. Counterterrorism must counter this action-movie glamor. Postrel suggests using mundane truths to disillusion glory-seekers (“Islamic State is for losers”). But that’s burdened by uncoolness (sensible warning labels haven’t beaten smoking’s cool).

5. Islamism is ISIS’ justifying “social currency,” but, says Dalia Mogahed, groups like ISIS would exist “without Islam.”

6. Whatever their faults, wrote George Orwell (reviewing Mein Kampf), “Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.” “Hitler ... knows that human beings don’t only want comfort. ... They also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice.”

7. “Most perpetrators of violence are neither pathological nor self-interested,” but believe they’re serving a “higher moral good,” says Steven Pinker — therefore “the world has far too much morality.” But that’s like saying there’s too much adrenaline or emotion — our capacities to produce adrenalin and strong moral feelings are inalienable. We can’t wish away our glands, or our social-rule processors (we can only configure their triggers and scripts).

8. Our fear system is badly skewed by news biases, Pinker feels. Statistically, traffic accidents threaten Americans far more than terrorism. But facts don’t trump fear (our “indirect rationality” means fear can only be retrained slowly).

9. “War is clearly what the media and the political system desire,” writes Matt Yglesias. That’s precisely ISIS’ goal, and Atran warns it’s unwinnable.

10. Barack Obama faces Postrel’s predicament: How to sell the unglamorous and sensible? This “speechwriting challenge” highlights how the optics and game of politics can generate disastrous decisions.

11. Only an extreme few act violently. Well “few” here cause ~95,000 deaths and injuries annually by gunfire (~1,000 times the terrorism death rate, see also).

Our response to terrorism shouldn’t ignore human appetites for glamor, and revenge (or justice), and meaning through sacrificing for a cause. Nor our “indirect rationality.” None of those are going away; we’d better harness them to good ends.

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Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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