We've already tacked three decades onto the average lifespan of an American, so what's wrong with adding another few decades?
A centenarian riding his bike in Long Beach, California (Reuters).
So far as we know, the last hundred years have been the most radical period of life extension in all of human history. At the turn of the twentieth century, life expectancy for Americans was just over 49 years; by 2010, that number had risen to 78.5 years, mostly on account of improved sanitation and basic medicine. But life extension doesn't always increase our well-being, especially when all that's being extended is decrepitude. There's a reason that Ponce de Leon went searching for the fountain of youth---if it were the fountain of prolonged dementia and arthritis he may not have bothered.
Over the past twenty years, biologists have begun to set their sights on the aging process itself, in part by paying close attention to species like the American Lobster, which, despite living as long as fifty years, doesn't seem to age much at all. Though some of this research has shown promise, it's not as though we're on the brink of developing a magical youth potion. Because aging is so biologically complex, encompassing hundreds of different processes, it's unlikely that any one technique will add decades of youth to our lives. Rather, the best we can hope for is a slow, incremental lengthening of our "youth-span," the alert and active period of our lives.
Not everyone is thrilled by the prospect of radical life extension. As funding for anti-aging research has exploded, bioethicists have expressed alarm, reasoning that extreme longevity could have disastrous social effects. Some argue that longer life spans will mean stiffer competition for resources, or a wider gap between rich and poor. Others insist that the aging process is important because it gives death a kind of time release effect, which eases us into accepting it. These concerns are well founded. Life spans of several hundred years are bound to be socially disruptive in one way or another; if we're headed in that direction, it's best to start teasing out the difficulties now.
But there is another, deeper argument against life extension---the argument from evolution. Its proponents suggest that we ought to avoid tinkering with any human trait borne of natural selection. Doing so, they argue, could have unforeseen consequences, especially given that natural selection has such a sterling engineering track record. If our bodies grow old and die, the thinking goes, then there must be a good reason, even if we don't understand it yet. Nonsense, says Bennett Foddy, a philosopher (and flash game developer!) from Oxford, who has written extensively about the ethics of life extension. "We think about aging as being a natural human trait, and it is natural, but it's not something that was selected for because it was beneficial to us." Foddy told me. "There is this misconception that everything evolution provides is beneficial to individuals and that's not correct."
Foddy has thought long and hard about the various objections to life extension and, for the most part, has found them wanting. This is our conversation about those objections, and about the exciting new biology of aging.
People usually regard life extension as a futuristic technology, but you begin your paper by discussing the ways that we've already extended the human lifespan. What's driven that?
Foddy: The reason I present it that way, is that there's always this background moral objection in enhancement debates, where a technology is perceived to be new, and by virtue of being new, is depicted as threatening or even strange. That goes for everything from genetic engineering to steroids to cloning and on and on. I think it's always worth contextualizing these things in terms of the normal. So with human cloning it's worth remembering that it's exactly the same as twinning. With steroids, it's worth remembering that in many ways it's not that different from training and exercise, and also that people have been taking testosterone since ancient times. I think this way you can kind of resist the idea that something is wrong just because it's strange.
When you're talking about medicines that help us live longer, it's important to realize how much we've already accomplished. In the last 150 years or so, we've doubled our life span from 40 to 80 years, and that's primarily through the use of things you can characterize as being medical science. In some cases it's clear that we're talking about medical enhancement---vaccines, for instance, or surgical hygiene and sterilization. And then more broadly there are other, non-medical things like the sanitation of the water supply and the pasteurization of milk and cheese. All of these things have saved an enormous amount of life.
It used to be that people would die of an infectious disease; they'd be struck down when they were very young or when they were older and their immune system was weak. Now almost nobody in the first world dies of infectious disease; we've basically managed to completely eradicate infectious disease through medical science. If, at the outset of this process, you asked people if we should develop technologies that would make us live until we're 80 on average instead of until we're 40, people might have expressed these same kind of misgivings that you hear today. They might have said, "Oh no that would be way too long, that would be unnatural, let's not do that."
So, in a way, we shouldn't view it as being extremely strange to develop these medicines, but in another sense we're at a new stage now, because now we're at the forefront of having medicines that actually address the aging process. And that's what I'm interested in talking about---the kinds of medicines that actually slow down the aging process, or at least some of the mechanisms of aging.
Can you explain how senescence, the biological process of aging, is unevenly distributed across species?
Foddy: There are different animals that are affected differently by various processes of aging. In my paper I go into the case of the American Lobster, which lives about as long as a human being. When you dissect one of these lobsters at the end of its life, its body doesn't show much in the way of weakening or wasting like you see in a human body of advanced age. That suggests that aging can evolve differently in different species. Lobsters seem to have evolved an adaptation against the cellular lifespan. There's this phenomenon where the DNA in our cells basically unravel after they've divided a certain amount of times, but lobsters have this enzyme that helps them replenish their telomeres---the caps that hold DNA together.
That's one of the reasons why lobsters don't seem to undergo aging in the same way that we do. Other species give off an antioxidant chemical in their bodies that prevent these oxidizing free radicals in our bodies from breaking us down. That's why doctor's recommend that you have a certain amount of antioxidants---some species are really good at producing those naturally.
There is this idea that when you're evolving you make certain trade-offs. Lobsters and clams don't really move around a lot; their bodies move and grow very slowly and one of the upsides of that is that they've been able to invest their evolutionary chips, so to speak, in resisting the aging process. Human beings, on the other hand, have to move around quite a lot. We have giant brains and we have to be able to run away from saber tooth tigers. As a result we have bodies that burn a lot of calories, and so that's where our chips are invested. It's just a difference in our evolutionary environment and that's why we've evolved to live and die the way we do. But it could have easily not turned out that way---that's the point I really want to make.
What are the current biological limits on our human life span, or our human "youth span," as you call it---the time that we're able to live as young, vibrant, reproducing individuals?
Foddy: The sky is sort of the limit there. There won't be a magic pill that gives us infinite youth, but over time there will probably be different technologies that allow you a few extra years of youth. We think of aging as being a unitary thing, but it's made up of hundreds of different processes. So, one of the different things we think about, for example, is dementia, the state where your brain sort of wastes away. Now, if we discover a way of reversing that process, or slowing that process, that would be one dimension where we no longer age, where our minds will stay youthful for longer. It's also possible that we might be able to find a way of stopping people's muscles from wasting away as they get older.
Nothing is going to be super dramatic, but there will be a point where you'll look back a hundred years and notice that people used to get really kind of feeble and after awhile they weren't capable of really thinking or processing information anymore, and they had to go into a home and they had to be looked after and nursed for a time. And that will seem very old-fashioned and very barbaric, but I very much doubt it will happen at a moment in time where we suddenly realize that some magic pill has exponentially extended our youth. Part of that's because we're not exactly clear what aging is. We've identified a whole range of processes, but there ere still a whole lot of arguments in the scientific community about what is really responsible for aging, and which of the processes are subsidiary to other processes.
Have we glimpsed, even theoretically, ways that we might add to that youth-span. What are the bleeding edge technologies that might allow us to overcome aging?
Foddy: I'm not a scientist, so I don't want to weigh in too heavily on somebody's body of research. We've seen promising results looking at the lobsters and we've seen promising results with antioxidants, even aspirin, but as I said these things are going to be incremental. You meet a lot of people in the scientific community that are true believers and they're expecting a kind of a radical thing. And it's not as though we never have a radical thing in medicine, but what we have more frequently is incremental advances.
Cancer is a great example of the kind of incremental progress I'm talking about. In 1970, your odds of surviving 5 years after you've were diagnosed with certain kinds of cancer were slim; those chances have increased substantially. But we still react to the idea of getting cancer as though it were 1970 because we don't really process incremental changes. Like with chemotherapy, they just change out one or two drugs every year based on trials that show that the new drug is 2 percent more effective than the previous drug. That's constantly going on, but it really isn't announced. Instead, we get the occasional story in the news about a miracle cure for cancer, and it always turns out not to be as good as they had hoped and everyone begins to get disillusioned about science and the value of medical progress. But when you run the comparisons across decades, you see something much more dramatic.
You give an interesting account of how the aging process evolved in humans. You argue that aging is not the result of an optimizing process, but that instead it's a byproduct of an optimizing process. Can you explain why that difference is so important?
Foddy: I should say, first of all, that this is not original to me; this is very well established in evolutionary biology. We have a number of genetic traits that we developed because they were advantageous from the perspective of natural selection---that is, they helped us to survive and reproduce. People that had the gene for that trait had the ability to reproduce more than people that didn't have it. It's easy to imagine that every gene that we have is selected because it gave a positive advantage in this way, but it turns out there are trade-offs. A number of the processes of aging seem to have arisen because our bodies were not doing enough maintenance, because they were busy doing something else. The misconception that people often have is that any trade-off that we have is going to be directly beneficial, directly advantageous. But that's not right.
The second thing to say is that aging usually happens to an organism after it reaches menopause. Things that happen after menopause are much less interesting in terms of evolution, because they have much less of an effect. If I've already reached the age where I can't reproduce, then aging that takes effect at this point in my life is not going to affect whether or not I reproduce. The game is sort of already over for me. As a result, natural selection doesn't tend to weed out genes that take effect after you've reached the age of menopause. So, there is this idea that over time you can amass genes in your genome that have nothing to do with survival or not surviving, because they only activate after you reach a certain age. So, over time, some of these are going to be good genes and some of them are going to be bad. It's going to be this kind of mix, but it's certainly not going to be the case that they're on balance beneficial. We've got hundreds or thousands of genes that don't start to harm us until we reach old age, and those genes are responsible for a lot of what actually constitutes aging. So, in this sense, we think about aging as being a natural human activity or a human trait---and it is natural, but it's not something that was selected because it was beneficial to us. There is this misconception that everything evolution provides has to be beneficial to individuals and that's not correct.
One defense of aging that your paper takes quite seriously is the argument from evolution, which was first put forth by Frances Fukuyama. Fukuyama claims that we should resist the temptation to tinker with any characteristic that we have been given through the process of natural selection. He argues that evolution can be relied upon to produce good results and that we ought not to mess with the fruit of its processes. What's wrong with this view?
Foddy: Fukuyama has this idea that evolution is very complicated, which is true. We don't always understand why we've evolved to be a certain way. Sometimes it looks like something is useful, but in fact it's performing some kind of role that we don't know much about. Fukuyama is also correct that sometimes we interfere with complicated biological systems without really understanding what the effects will be, and that then we wind up with some unwanted effect. That's all true.
The thing that I disagree with him about is his presumption that if we have a trait that's evolved, that it must be beneficial to us in some way, and that we have some good reason for allowing that trait stick around. Now he's not talking strictly about aging; his book discusses all kinds of intervention on the human organism. But, when it comes to aging, his argument can't even succeed on its own merits, because we know for a fact that aging is not the sort of thing that is produced by natural selection in the kind of positive way that he is talking about. He says it's not always easy to do nature one better, but that's not what we're doing when we're combating aging. We're not trying to do nature one better, because nature doesn't care that we grow old and die. This is neglect, evolutionary neglect. We shouldn't think about it as interfering with the sort of complex ecological balance in the way that he's worried about.
Now that's not to say that our current mode of life extension is ideal. Some of the biggest strains on our resources stem from the fact that populations are getting older as birthrate's go down, especially in the first world. Aging societies are spending more and more on nursing, and so I think that it makes sense to pursue a youth-extending medicine that would diminish the number of years that we have to spend in nursing homes. You could imagine us living more like the lobster, where we still live to be about 80-85, but we're alert and active until we drop dead. In that scenario we wouldn't have this giant burden where the state has to support and pay to nurse people that are unable to look after themselves anymore.
Now, it has to be said that the story of medicine and medical progress in the past 50 years has not been heading that way. If anything, we're extending the number of years that we spend needing nursing. We've gotten good at keeping people alive once they're fairly decrepit. And that sort of guarantees that you have the maximum drain on resources, while also producing the kind of minimum amount of human benefit. You get to be 90 years old and your hip goes out, and we give you a massively expensive hip replacement, but we don't do things to prevent your body from wasting away and becoming corroded when you're 20, 30 or 40.
There's this great Greek myth, the myth of Tithonus, that always comes to mind. Tithonus was a mortal who was in love with Eos, the goddess of the dawn. Eos didn't want Tithonus to grow old and die, so she went to Zeus to ask for eternal life, which was granted. But, she forgot to ask for eternal youth, and so Tithonus just gets older and older and more decrepit, and eventually he can't really move, and then finally he turns into a grasshopper in the end. That's sort of the course that we're on with our current approach to medicine and life extension.
Some ethicists have pointed out that death is one of the major forces for equality in the world, and that welfare disparities will be worsened if some people can afford to postpone old age, or avoid it altogether, while others are unable to. What do you say to them?
Foddy: I think that's right. I mean there are concerns whenever we develop any kind of medicine or any kind of technology---the concern that these things are going to widen welfare gaps. The story of industrialization is that the people who could afford the cars and machines and factories in Western countries were able to produce a lot more and generate a lot more wealth than people in poorer agrarian economies. That's a serious issue. It's probably true that if people in the first world were, through some sort of medical intervention, able to live to be 200 years old and people in Bangladesh were still dying at a relatively young age, that would tend to widen the distance in personal wealth.
And look this has already happened. It's already unfair that I will on average live to be 80 and yet, if I were born before some arbitrary date, or in some other place, I would live much less longer. Those things are unfair and it's worth worrying about them, but I don't think the correct response is to hold off on the science. It's better if everybody can eventually get this medicine, because living a long time is not a positional good, it's an absolute good. It would be great if everybody could live to be 150, because that would benefit every single person. It's not a good that benefits you only if other people are worse off. When you have goods like that you should try to develop them and then you should worry separately about making sure that they get delivered to people in poorer areas, whether it's through government aid or massive production.
Another objection to the elimination of aging is this idea that the aging process makes an elderly person's death less painful for the survivors around her, because it gradually forces people to stop relying on her, and forces her to gradually remove herself from society. You call this the argument from psycho-social history.
Foddy: This is Leon Kass' argument. He thinks aging is just fantastic for this reason because it helps us to let go of somebody. And of course it's true that when people grow old, they become less useful to society, and more socially difficult, which places burdens on people. And in a lot of cases we respond to this by cutting them out of our lives, essentially. People get older, they move into a nursing home, and we see them less and less, and then when they finally die everyone's like, "well it was expected." Advanced age sort of helps us prepare emotionally for letting go of people, but it seems to me that it's not good for the person who gets old.
Now, what would the world be like if people dropped dead in good health when they reach a certain age? It would be very sad, but on the upside the person would've had 20 or 30 years of additional integration into society and we would've been able to spend more time with them. I've got to say that I would've enjoyed my grandmother's presence a lot more if she'd been able to run around and to play and work and be part of society in her extremely advanced age.
Nick Bostrom has said that people have fallen victim to a kind of Stockholm syndrome when it comes to aging. The idea being that because aging has always been an insurmountable obstacle for humanity, that we have dignified it more than it deserves, that we contort ourselves logically and rhetorically to defend it precisely because it is so inescapable. Does that sound right to you?
Foddy: Yes, I think that's right, although Nick draws conclusions that are a bit more extreme than I would tend to draw. I think that we do have a tendency to kind of rationalize things that we don't think we can do anything about. This is a perfectly healthy attitude if you really can't do anything about the aging process---it's better to accept it and kind of talk about it as being a natural part of life, not something to rail against or feel bad about. It's something that everybody goes through. Now if it did so happen that we could discover a medicine that completely prevents that process from taking place, we would have to re-evaluate at that stage and realize that we've done some emotional rationalization here and the conditions for it no longer apply. We no longer need to comfort ourselves with the inevitability of death if it's not actually inevitable.
Having said that, death is, in fact, inevitable. Even if we solve every medical problem, you still have a 1 in 1,000 chance of dying every year by some sort of accident. So, on those odds you could probably expect to live to be about 1,000. I don't think it's ever going to be the case that we will live forever. It's not even going to be 1,000. We're probably talking about living to be 120 or 150 or somewhere around there, but to me the idea that we have to accept living to 80 rather than 120 is bizarre given that it's not so long ago that we lived to 40.
The man who made computers personal was a genius and a jerk. A new documentary wonders whether his legacy can accommodate both realities.
An iPhone is a machine much like any other: motherboard, modem, microphone, microchip, battery, wires of gold and silver and copper twisting and snaking, the whole assembly arranged under a piece of glass whose surface—coated with an oxide of indium and tin to make it electrically conductive—sparks to life at the touch of a warm-blooded finger. But an iPhone, too, is much more than a machine. The neat ecosystem that hums under its heat-activated glass holds grocery lists and photos and games and jokes and news and books and music and secrets and the voices of loved ones and, quite possibly, every text you’ve ever exchanged with your best friend. Thought, memory, empathy, the stuff we sometimes shorthand as “the soul”: There it all is, zapping through metal whose curves and coils were designed to be held in a human hand.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
In continuing to tinker with the universe she built eight years after it ended, J.K. Rowling might be falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.
September 1st, 2015 marked a curious footnote in Harry Potter marginalia: According to the series’s elaborate timeline, rarely referenced in the books themselves, it was the day James S. Potter, Harry’s eldest son, started school at Hogwarts. It’s not an event directly written about in the books, nor one of particular importance, but their creator, J.K. Rowling, dutifully took to Twitter to announce what amounts to footnote details: that James was sorted into House Gryffindor, just like his father, to the disappointment of Teddy Lupin, Harry’s godson, apparently a Hufflepuff.
It’s not earth-shattering information that Harry’s kid would end up in the same house his father was in, and the Harry Potter series’s insistence on sorting all of its characters into four broad personality quadrants largely based on their family names has always struggled to stand up to scrutiny. Still, Rowling’s tweet prompted much garment-rending among the books’ devoted fans. Can a tweet really amount to a piece of canonical information for a book? There isn’t much harm in Rowling providing these little embellishments years after her books were published, but even idle tinkering can be a dangerous path to take, with the obvious example being the insistent tweaks wrought by George Lucas on his Star Wars series.
Fractured by internal conflict and foreign intervention for centuries, Afghanistan made several tentative steps toward modernization in the mid-20th century. In the 1950s and 1960s, some of the biggest strides were made toward a more liberal and westernized lifestyle, while trying to maintain a respect for more conservative factions. Though officially a neutral nation, Afghanistan was courted and influenced by the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War, accepting Soviet machinery and weapons, and U.S. financial aid. This time was a brief, relatively peaceful era, when modern buildings were constructed in Kabul alongside older traditional mud structures, when burqas became optional for a time, and the country appeared to be on a path toward a more open, prosperous society. Progress was halted in the 1970s, as a series of bloody coups, invasions, and civil wars began, continuing to this day, reversing almost all of the steps toward modernization taken in the 50s and 60s. Keep in mind, when looking at these images, that the average life expectancy for Afghans born in 1960 was 31, so the vast majority of those pictured have likely passed on since.
According to Franklin, what mattered in business was humility, restraint, and discipline. But today’s Type-A MBAs would find him qualified for little more than a career in middle management.
When he retired from the printing business at the age of 42, Benjamin Franklin set his sights on becoming what he called a “Man of Leisure.” To modern ears, that title might suggest Franklin aimed to spend his autumn years sleeping in or stopping by the tavern, but to colonial contemporaries, it would have intimated aristocratic pretension. A “Man of Leisure” was typically a member of the landed elite, someone who spent his days fox hunting and affecting boredom. He didn’t have to work for a living, and, frankly, he wouldn’t dream of doing so.
Having worked as a successful shopkeeper with a keen eye for investments, Franklin had earned his leisure, but rather than cultivate the fine arts of indolence, retirement, he said, was “time for doing something useful.” Hence, the many activities of Franklin’s retirement: scientist, statesman, and sage, as well as one-man civic society for the city of Philadelphia. His post-employment accomplishments earned him the sobriquet of “The First American” in his own lifetime, and yet, for succeeding generations, the endeavor that was considered his most “useful” was the working life he left behind when he embarked on a life of leisure.
In Beijing, China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and its role in defeating Japan, by holding an enormous military parade and declaring a new national holiday. The spectacle involved more than 12,000 troops, 500 pieces of military hardware, and 200 aircraft.
In Beijing, China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and its role in defeating Japan, by holding an enormous military parade and declaring a new national holiday. The spectacle involved more than 12,000 troops, 500 pieces of military hardware, and 200 aircraft of various types, representing what military officials said were the Chinese military's most cutting-edge technology. While the entire event was a show of strength, Chinese officials insisted the message was about peace, with the logo displayed on posters featuring an image of a dove.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
Some people see threats even when none are present. Strangely, it can make them more creative.
For much of his life, Isaac Newton seemed like he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In 1693, the collapse finally arrived: After not sleeping for five days straight, Newton sent letters accusing his friends of conspiring against him. He was refraining from publishing books, he said at one point that year, “for fear that disputes and controversies may be raised against me by ignoramuses.”
Newton was, by many accounts, highly neurotic. Brilliant, but neurotic nonetheless. He was prone to depressive jags, mistrust, and angry outbursts.
Unfortunately, his genius might have been rooted in his maladjustments. His mental state led him to brood over past mistakes, and eventually, a breakthrough would dawn. “I keep the subject constantly before me,” he once said, “and wait till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.”
When Kenneth Jarecke photographed an Iraqi man burned alive, he thought it would change the way Americans saw the Gulf War. But the media wouldn’t run the picture.
The Iraqi soldier died attempting to pull himself up over the dashboard of his truck. The flames engulfed his vehicle and incinerated his body, turning him to dusty ash and blackened bone. In a photograph taken soon afterward, the soldier’s hand reaches out of the shattered windshield, which frames his face and chest. The colors and textures of his hand and shoulders look like those of the scorched and rusted metal around him. Fire has destroyed most of his features, leaving behind a skeletal face, fixed in a final rictus. He stares without eyes.
On February 28, 1991, Kenneth Jarecke stood in front of the charred man, parked amid the carbonized bodies of his fellow soldiers, and photographed him. At one point, before he died this dramatic mid-retreat death, the soldier had had a name. He’d fought in Saddam Hussein’s army and had a rank and an assignment and a unit. He might have been devoted to the dictator who sent him to occupy Kuwait and fight the Americans. Or he might have been an unlucky young man with no prospects, recruited off the streets of Baghdad.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.