ISIS Explained in Under 200 Words

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The satirist and frequent Atlantic contributor Karl Sharro, who has made it his mission to thoroughly complicate our understanding of everything from free speech to the Iran deal to Mideast conflict to the war in Yemen, has done it again. This time his target is what I’d call hammer-nailism: the tendency of analysts to reductively understand ISIS through the lens of their pet cause. Hence scientists and liberals claiming that climate change caused ISIS,  or a certain French economist arguing that income inequality facilitated the group’s rise.

Sharro’s assessment is just a tad wordier:

It’s actually one of the best distillations I’ve seen of the myriad roots of the Islamic State, and it speaks to why answering the question posed by The Atlantic's new project—What to do about ISIS?—is so devilishly hard, but also so important.

I was disappointed when, in the most recent Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton retreated from her comments about the need to deal with enemies by “trying to understand and insofar as psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view.”

“Historically, it is important to try to understand your adversary in order to figure out how they are thinking, what they will be doing, how they will react,” Clinton said. “I plead that it’s very difficult when you deal with ISIS and organizations like that whose behavior is so barbaric and so vicious that it doesn’t seem to have any purpose other than lust for killing and power, and that’s very difficult to put ourselves in the other shoe.”

Striving to understand your enemy, particularly when doing so seems impossibly difficult and the struggle with that enemy is fiercest, is critical to devising an effective strategy to defeat it.

After all, the thought exercise helped Sharro come up with one solution: