Obama Confronts the Joker of the Middle East, Cont'd

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

Responding to my note about the ISIS/Joker analogy from Obama’s interview with Jeff, a reader analyzed a couple more scenes from The Dark Night and suggested that the members of the Islamic State, like the Joker, are “agents of chaos.” But another reader, Jesse MacLean, disagrees, arguing that characterizing ISIS as nihilistic misses a fundamental truth about the group:

I love that The Atlantic is taking President Obama’s cinematic comparison and running with it. I’d like to add that further parallels between the Joker and ISIS can be found in Alfred’s famous “some men just want to watch the world burn” speech [embedded in the previous note]—specifically because the speech is wrong, and because Alfred is wrong about the Joker, in ways that I believe people are often wrong about ISIS.

In his speech, Alfred tells the story of a bandit he once faced in Burma. The government employing Alfred had been bribing local leaders with gems, and the bandit had been raiding the caravans transporting the precious stones, then throwing the gems away. Alfred concludes that the bandit was only raiding for the sport of it, and was completely beyond reason—like the Joker.

However, the idea that the bandit might have objected to the bribery is never considered.

Likewise with the Joker, and with ISIS: No one in the movie is really able to grapple with the Joker’s vision and mentality until the very end, despite all his speeches, and his protestations that he is not crazy (just “ahead of the curve”). The Joker, like many terrorists, is trying to spread a moral message, a version of personal truth so extreme that it sounds like madness to ordinary citizens: that the codes civilized people live by are hypocritical, false and corrupt, and that the only sane way to live is without artificial rules.

Think about the Joker’s speech to Harvey in the hospital [embedded above], where he talks about the hypocrisy of how no one panics when death and suffering—like soldiers being blown up—are part of “the plan,” but everyone loses their minds when “one little old mayor” will get shot. In his own warped way, the Joker is a very moral man. He cannot abide a lie—in this case, what he sees as the lie of civilization and human decency.

I think of Alfred and his bandit sometimes when I read descriptions of ISIS as “nihilistic” or “insane.” I believe they are the last group of people on the planet who could be described as believing in nothing, or acting as though existence has no purpose. Like the Joker, they see the structures of the world around them as corrupt and decadent and not worth clinging to. However, the truth they spread in response takes the form of extremist Islamism, not anarchy. One hopes they can be stopped without burning the figurative forest down, as Alfred ultimately did.

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