They all embody the romance of revolution, they all offer the young a shot at immortality, a deep meaning for their lives, a chance to become, in time, a hero - or heroine - of the people.
Nevermind that the Abraham Lincoln Brigade opposed the rise of fascism, nevermind that Fidel Castro and Che had a vision of a happy socialist state, nevermind that Lord Byron dreamed of Greek independence from the Ottoman state. Nevermind that ISIS feeds on despair, fear, and futility. It sounds like a cause, it seems to require courage, it does require doing hard, hard things. How could disaffected youth from anywhere possibly resist?
I had a conversation with a friend of mine recently, remembering the days of our youth. I was a young skinny white girl in Chicago, who daydreamed about marching on city hall - or some such place - with the Black Panthers. Armed Black Panthers. In a tragically lost cause. She remembers saying, "Come the revolution," in much the same way that the Jewish diaspora murmured, "Next year in Jerusalem," pinning all hope on a day that no one expected to come.
My daydreams were just that. I never, to my knowledge, actually met a Black Panther, and if I had I would have been too embarrassed to admit to any such foolish notions. My friend's revolution faded away. I went to a lecture by Ken Kesey one evening in 1980. "The revolution is over," he told us. "We lost." I think he was wrong about that, but this isn't the time to go there. I am, however, very relieved that very, very few of us ever picked up weapons.
I have some empathy with the young people who find themselves attracted to ISIS, although I fear it is in so many ways the polar opposite to the Spanish Civil War, the Cuban Revolution, or the Greek War of Independence. It is as if, instead of joining the forces for good, they have allied themselves with the facists, with the colonial powers, with - yes - with the Ottoman Empire. With the caliphate. Somehow ISIS has managed to marry the search for meaning in the lives of susceptible young people to the longing for power. I think that is why they are not put off, at least in the beginning, by the brutality. Baddassedness means power, and who needs to keep searching for meaning when you have an AK47 and a knife? For some young men, that's what they mean.
There have been a spate of articles lately attempting to understand this very phenomenon, and I encourage you to read them at your leisure:
Some just want to come home, but when they try they are threatened or, even worse, not welcomed back.
There have been calls for Britain to introduce an amnesty for returnees from Syria and Iraq and to replicate the rehabilitation programmes of countries such as Denmark which help those who come back to get their lives back on track without the threat of prosecution. Begg said that groups had approached him to try to put pressure on the government to show leniency to disillusioned fighters returning. Recently, the government suggested British jihadis who went to fight in Iraq or Syria could be tried for treason.
I will not be surprised to find that the U.S. follows Britain's, rather than Denmark's, lead on this. But I think it is a big mistake.
These young have been romanced, enticed away by a pied piper, piping a vision of playing an important part in the world. Most of them go with the idea of doing good - perhaps not good in the sense of feeding the hungry and curing the sick, but good in the sense of reordering the world to their newfound beliefs for the ultimate good of all, whether they like it or not. A very teenage thing for which to yearn.
They are being offered the One Ring, and perhaps have never heard or have forgotten Gandalf's refusal of it: I would use this ring from a desire to do good... But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine. Or Galadriel: In the place of a Dark Lord you would have a Queen! Not dark but beautiful and terrible as the Morn! Treacherous as the Seas! Stronger than the foundations of the Earth! All shall love me and despair!
Those are the dreams of youth: relevance, love, power - a significant place in the history of the world. So much more enticing than the meaningless lives they, in their teenage angst, see spreading out before them, seeping their lives away. But they are being duped. They are going to Mordor, not to destroy the Ring of Power, but to give it their life's blood. And when they come home, we should welcome them with soup and good beds, running water and love. For a great many of them, it might not be too late.