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 earlier note, reader David Ferguson mines The Dark Knight for more insight into ISIS and the modern Middle East. He starts by referencing the scene embedded above:

The Joker/ISIS analogy is fairly strong, but maybe not for the reasons Obama commented upon. Later in The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne has an exchange with his butler Alfred Pennyworth. He tells Alfred that the mob crossed a line when it decided to work with the Joker. Alfred retorts, in one of the most powerful messages about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East (without even mentioning the Middle East):

You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.

Look back at the rich, vibrant history of the Middle East: No one wanted ISIS. Whatever you make of Islam’s holy texts, ISIS isn’t a natural outgrowth of Middle Eastern Islam; it’s the product of desperation.

I’m reminded of another analogy from the movie.

In one scene, Harvey Dent pushes the Joker to accept guilt for his plan to kill Rachel. The Joker deflects, saying that he doesn’t have plans.

Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it!

While ISIS probably doesn’t think of itself as an “agent of chaos” the way the Joker did, ISIS’s plan to conquer the world and rule as a caliphate isn’t a plan. Looking at how it governs now, it wouldn’t know the first thing about actual governance. The whole idea is to have God come in and take care of it. ISIS’s chaos is a different breed than the Joker’s but it is, in all practical matters, chaos.

Your thoughts? See any other parallels? Email hello@theatlantic.com.