- - Wednesday, July 6, 2016


Terrorism expert Peter Bergen said recently on Capitol Hill, “The homegrown terrorist is the biggest threat to the United States.” According to New America’s “ISIS in the West: The New Faces of Extremism,” the most common demographic of Americans recruited by ISIS, or the Islamic State, is a 25-year-old who is socially connected on the internet. What, then, is the special appeal that would drive an American young adult to radicalism and then terrorism, and what can we do about it? The answer has to do with the philosophical and religious dimension of the war against Islamist terrorism, which our government is reluctant to address.

ISIS articulates the “why” underlying its purposes while the United States does not. Specifically, ISIS is explaining American reluctance to address the core issue of human existence.

The world is in the midst of a war of beliefs. The battle is for the soul. It is not about economic opportunity or catchy phrases or slick promotions. It’s about knowing the why of life. It is a longing for meaning. Helpless before Nazi torture, Viktor Frankl realized, “He who has a why to live for can bear any how.” Human will is incredibly powerful when it connects to something greater. When it doesn’t connect or disconnects, there is despair. When it connects to evil, there is cruelty.

ISIS taps into an innate desire for meaning, purpose and community. This is what makes it dangerous. “Honor is in jihad,” declares an English propaganda video from June 2015. ISIS offers jihad to destroy the depravity of the West. Taqwah, the ascetic life, is a balm to cure Western indulgence; sacrifice, the cure to Western gratification; and piety, an alternative to Western immorality. ISIS seduces recruits with a sense of belonging to a larger community, the Ummah, and guarantees eternal paradise. Once committed, followers have no regard for the inhumane acts of violence they perpetrate on this earth.

The U.S. response fails to address the existential nature of this war. An ex-terrorist interviewed by CNN called the Department of State’s message, “Think again, turn away,” not just ineffective, but “counter-effective.” The most viewed State Department video, “Welcome to the Islamic State,” depicts ISIS’ savagery. The last frame, “Think again, turn away,” is disappointing considering what could have been a powerful climax: “Defend freedom, defeat [ISIS].”

Meanwhile, a Department of the Army recruiting video on GoArmy.com titled, “U.S. Army Prepared for Anything,” shows employment opportunities available in the Army and ends with “A team with one simple mission — win.” Similarly, a Department of Defense news video, “Want to See the World through My Eyes,” shows the what and the how of the military mission. Soldiers are asked to forego their civilian comforts for the rigors of military training in order to deploy anywhere in the world and put their very lives at risk to defeat evil. But what is missing is the why. The Army should say what is truly involved: “One Tough Mission — Defend Freedom with Your Life.”

The United States should seize the initiative by speaking directly to the why. Young Americans were in primary school when terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001. They know the threat of violence is real. They are also the most informed generation in history. The U.S. should call upon them to serve a higher purpose. There is no other nation or nation-state that can provide purpose like the United States of America. Our country is far from perfect. Yet, for all our faults, America’s pursuit of “life, liberty, and happiness” remains an ideal worthy of one’s life and, if need be, death.

The United States can look to its military for inspiration. A 2015 Gallup Poll shows 72 percent of Americans have a high regard for the 1 percent of the population who serve honorably in uniform. Courageous young Americans in uniform selflessly serve the cause of freedom every day. Dedicated military families anxiously keep the faith while separated from their service member. Resilient Gold Star families persevere in memory of loved ones who gave the last full measure of devotion. To give one’s life so all others may be free — free to live, to believe, to dream, to worship, to learn, to serve — is a noble pursuit.

The U.S. military with its unparalleled technology, innovation and superior leadership cooperating strategically with allies in the region will ultimately degrade ISIS. But that is not enough.

To defeat ISIS requires a national will to do so — a will that is linked to the ultimate meaning and purposes of our lives — both our individual lives and the life of our nation. When our national leaders address this conflict at its most profound level, we will be able to target the enemy’s center of gravity — the heart of its appeal to young people searching for meaning. But this requires our leaders to have a philosophical and spiritual commitment to freedom that is commensurate with the resolve of our troops. Only then will freedom triumph.

• Karen Meeker is a lieutenant colonel and chaplain in the U.S. Army, and a Senior War College Fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.

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