Matthew Behrens
ISIS: Their barbarism… and ours

| September 24, 2014
Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t/flickr

The incessant drumbeat of war, accompanied by the harsh propaganda of "barbarism" and "brutality" directed at individuals in Syria and Iraq, is as wearily familiar as that used to demonize the German "Hun" a century ago and dozens of other "enemies" in the interim. The PR industry, which is the landing pad for many politicos from the Conservatives to the NDP, is having a field day, from allegations that "Islamic militants" are murdering seniors in hospital rooms (perhaps an update of the Hill & Knowlton-created falsehood that Iraqis ripped babies from incubators after the 1991 invasion of Kuwait) to claims that a group with no air force, weapons of mass destruction, overseas military bases, aircraft carriers, and hundreds of billions in other war infrastructure presents the greatest threat known to our generation.

Needless to say, many of the actions of the group known as ISIS, ISIL, and IS (not to be confused with the folks hawking newspapers at lefty events) are reprehensible, from the targeting of specific groups based on their identity (i.e., Shia Muslims) to gross violations against women. And while members of this group should be condemned for their actions -- which, combined with the major gains they have made over the summer, do raise significant questions about the future of the region -- it is important to note that they are no different from the actions of NATO and its members whenever they go to war, with perhaps the difference that much of the "West's" brutality is conducted from afar, whether 30,000 feet in the air or 10,000 miles away.

Afghan lives have no value

Indeed, as Amnesty International reported in August's Left in the Dark: Failures of Accountability for Civilian Casualties Caused by International Military Operations in Afghanistan, thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed since 2001 by NATO forces in everything from bombing strikes to night raids, almost always without follow-up investigation and accountability. Richard Bennett, Amnesty's Asia Pacific Director, said, "Evidence of possible war crimes and unlawful killings has seemingly been ignored." That endless reign of terror was added to last week with yet another U.S. air strike that killed 14 civilians in the eastern part of the country, with Bennett concluding, "The lack of accountability for killings of civilians by U.S./NATO forces in Afghanistan sends a message that foreign troops have free rein to commit abuses in Afghanistan and that the lives of Afghan civilians have little or no value."

Ordering atrocities from afar has long been standard operating procedure for western governments, including the torture by proxy that Canada's intelligence agencies have engaged in with Egypt and Syria, and Barack Obama's curt, callous comment, "We tortured some folks," an attempt to soften the impact of a U.S. Senate report on complicity in torture due out soon. One source who has seen the report told the London Daily Telegraph in early September that the CIA took some detainees "to the point of death," noting that the "waterboarding" euphemism was not simply dropping bits of H20 on a facecloth, but instead, "They were holding [detainees] under water until the point of death, with a doctor present to make sure they did not go too far. This was real torture."

Such criminality is given the executive stamp of approval when Obama says he will not prosecute Bush or Clinton-era officials for such policies; similarly, no one in Canada has ever been charged, much less prosecuted, for high-level Canadian complicity in torture over the same time period. As reported here last month, Canada's official policy is to trade information with torturers, in flagrant violation of all international legal norms.

Acknowledging such home-grown violence is important in contextualizing (though certainly not condoning) the actions of ISIS and related groups.

Meanwhile, in taking a page from the Hill & Knowlton playbook, among others, the boys from ISIS know the value of a gruesome video, which tends to dramatize and inspire fear far beyond their actual capacity to do damage to people halfway around the globe. And so the beheading videos have become a focus for incessant condemnation from countries like the U.S. (which regularly executes people via lethal injection) and Canada (which until 1962 murdered over 700 people by the equally brutal means of hanging, a slower version of beheading). Recent reports of young men playing soccer with severed heads are unfortunate reminders of the sickness of militarism and desensitization that comes with warrior societies, and are reminiscent of the soccer games U.S.-trained and Canadian-supported soldiers played with dead babies in El Salvador during the 1980s.

Obama's long-distance beheadings

The beheading mania sheds a light both on what is patently and obviously barbaric (YouTube videos featuring heads coming off at the hand of a masked individual) and what is barbarism conducted from the comfort and safety of North American bunkers. The latter are located in places like New York and California, from which soldiers operating unmanned aerial drones are able to launch Hellfire missiles against schools, weddings, and other gatherings, especially those which include what Barack Obama views as "military-age males" who are likely up to no good, all of which are justified "unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." When the Hellfires explode, they create what they were named for: severed bodies, including heads, lie scattered about the towns and villages where thousands have been murdered from afar on Obama's direct orders, emerging from his "Terror Tuesday" morning meetings, during which he approves his kill lists. Indeed, the Assassinator-in-Chief was quoted during one of these meetings as stating: "Turns out I'm really good at killing people. Didn't know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine."

The late Gloria Emerson is a former war correspondent whose elegy on the American invasion and war against Vietnam, Winners and Losers, is a deeply felt cri de coeur against a society that makes war and carries on as if no slaughters are committed with our tax dollars and in our name. Emerson noted in the 1970s a growing trend in which "our military technology is so advanced that we kill at a distance and insulate our consciences by the remoteness of the killing."

So our barbarism is a few steps removed, but it remains no less stomach-churning. We don't see the bloodied and dismembered victims on the ground after Canadian and U.S. bombers drop cluster bombs, "daisy cutters," napalm, white phosphorous, and 1,000-pound bombs on villages with thatched huts, but our fellow citizens show up by the hundreds of thousands for annual war shows in which these same killing machines are flown above our heads to great applause and appreciation. We rightfully condemn anyone cheering on scimitar-based beheadings, yet think nothing of our neighbours clapping for a B-52 bomber back from the mass beheading of whole villages.

Targeting water, promoting disease

The barbarism that is ISIS has its roots in the barbarism that was Canadian and "coalition" war policy in the obliteration of Iraq in the 1991 "Gulf" war and subsequent sanctions, which claimed millions of lives in what some UN experts called a genocidal campaign against the Iraqi people. When Canadian CF-18s went on their bombing runs over Iraq in 1991, it was a particularly barbarous mission that consciously, deliberately, targeted Iraq's civilian infrastructure and electricity supply, knowing this would eliminate the desert country's ability to provide clean drinking water to its citizens. One January, 1991 U.S. military document, "Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities," noted that wiping out Iraq's water purification systems "could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease [cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid]."

Another related document, "Effects of Bombing on Disease Occurrence in Baghdad," bluntly concluded: "Increased incidence of diseases will be attributable to degradation of normal preventive medicine, waste disposal, water purification/distribution, electricity, and decreased ability to control disease outbreaks. Any urban area in Iraq that has received infrastructure damage will have similar problems." The document notes that "particularly children" will be adversely affected.

Of course, by 1996, some half million Iraqi children had been murdered by the slow and steady constriction imposed by the U.S., Canada and other nations, which then U.S. Ambassador to the UN (and seriously under-rated war criminal) Madeleine Albright told CBS' 60 Minutes "was worth it." (The slow destruction of whole peoples by poisoning their waters and then preventing the provision of proper purification systems is well known to Canada, where First Nations boil water alerts have gone on for decades. A report last week reminded us that almost 50 per cent of Ontario's 133 First Nations communities continue to exist under boil water alerts lasting as long as 20 years.

Harper supports the Saudis who behead people

But the Harper government is not interested in solving decades-long water pollution problems, preferring to focus on ISIS beheadings. But it is a very selective view, for Canada blithely ignores Saudi Arabia for carrying out the same atrocities.

During August 2014, the Saudi government publicly executed almost one person a day, including at least eight beheadings for alleged apostasy, adultery, drug-offences, and "witchcraft." The response of Harper and company to such a regime, which also refuses women the right to drive or do much of anything without the permission of male guardians, is to reward the beheading leader of the Middle East with two of the largest weapons contracts in Canadian history, totalling $14.8-billion. The contracts were brokered by the Canadian Commercial Corporation for General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ontario, making Saudi Arabia the largest recipient of Canadian military products for perhaps a decade to come. Such Canadian-made armoured vehicles have been used to repress freedom demonstrations in neighbouring Bahrain and will no doubt be used to clamp down on any visible signs of dissent in the Saudi kingdom.  

The deal for Saudi war materiel also conveniently ignores that country's role in supporting ISIS and similar groups. As Patrick Cockburn writes in The London Review of Books, the Saudis, other Gulf monarchies and Turkey are literally the "foster parents" of ISIS, and without their financial support, the group could not have made the gains it did this past summer, taking over both a wide swath of northern Iraq and becoming the dominant opposition to the Assad regime in Syria. Will the possibility of an ISIS takeover of Syria turn Assad's regime back into the "friend" of Canada, a role it so clearly played when, on behalf of CSIS and the RCMP, it tortured Canadians Abdullah Almalki, Maher Arar, Ahmad El Maati, and Muayyed Nureddin? 

Questioning the roots of violence

As ISIS proves itself the latest wet dream of weapons manufacturers the world over (another crisis to spur arms sales!) and offers macho photo-ops for politicians of all stripes who "visit the front lines" of this "new war," it does provide Canadians with many opportunities to question and act upon the roots of violence in our own society, from the despair and destruction wrought by our centuries of colonial domination of First Nations to the thousands of workers in London, Ontario who churn out military equipment for one of the globe's worst human rights pariahs. Our distance from most of this becomes that insulating blanket Emerson wrote about; our willingness to do anything about it is a true reflection of our values.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t/flickr


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.