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

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