Puzzle requires thought, as well as bombs, boots

One week, Beirut and Paris; the next week, Mali. The nightmare is young. Where next?

The pace and threat of terror seem to have picked up, each incident feeding on the previous. Fear takes hold, momentum builds. Rhetoric flies in the face of reason, until all reason abandons the field.

But then, how do you solve a problem like crazy? And how do you prevent becoming crazed yourself? It’s contagious, you know. Besides, what’s more crazy-making than trying to deal rationally with the irrational?

What leverage does an army have against an enemy that welcomes death?

We say: If you don’t stop murdering innocent people, we’re going to bomb you into oblivion.

They say: Bring it on. No, wait, we’ll do it ourselves. Boom.

None of our human instruments or moral benchmarks seems to have any effect on such pitiless murderers. We know they’re inhumane, but are they even human? What went missing at their creation? The next time we capture one of these empty-eyed killers, we might examine the anterior insular cortex, the activity center of human empathy. Dead space.

We are left, meanwhile, to protect ourselves and to wrestle our own demons — fear, paranoia, and the impulse to do something — though we may be no safer.

Shut down the borders; send in the troops; block the refugees; bomb some more; let’s roll.

Tugging at our sleeve is the voice of experience — that our previous attempts to bring an end to terrorism, to take the fight to them, have merely increased the threat over time. Blame whom you will, but the fact remains that thousands upon thousands of deaths — Americans and others — have created yet more deaths. The vacuums we created, replacing vicious dictators who kept reasonable if brutal order, have become open houses to migratory coalitions of the willing-to-die.

Our manic stabs at self-protection become their recruitment weapons. Our default partisanship, their propaganda.

Politicians and presidential candidates who race each other to promulgate flimsy fixes amid raging rhetoric — creating Muslim databases, shutting down mosques, even comparing Syrian refugees to rabid dogs — suggest that contagion is in the air.

Whom would young Islamic cultists find more objectionable — their fellow warriors fighting for the End Times and eventual return of the “Prophet Jesus”? Or the Muslim-hating “freedom” lovers who call them dogs?

This isn’t to justify such absurd thinking but to highlight the reality of their perceptions. How does sending in thousands of American troops — a Christian invasion by the terrorists’ scopes — shift or conquer a dynamic fueled by beliefs that have remained unchanged by centuries of enlightenment, science and knowledge?

How many American lives are we willing to sacrifice this time to accomplish what may not be possible? We may as well be fighting sandworms, which is not an insult but a literary reference to Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series — meaning an unstoppable foe that lurks out of sight until it’s too late, is virtually indestructible, and has an indefinite lifespan.

The sandworms, called Shai-Hulud, were worshipped by the local “Fremen” and their actions were viewed as the direct actions of God. Herbert, who died in 1986, was eerily prescient when he began the series in the mid-1960s. Too bad he isn’t here to advise us. We could do — and have done — worse.

Would turning our backs on people who are being slaughtered make us safer? Or would it merely create more sandworms?

This is a call not to look away but to be solemnly cautious, thoughtful and creative. Is the Islamic State’s mission to establish a caliphate, thus to hasten the End Times, a mental disorder? Is it treatable? Is their tactical savagery pathological? Is there a doctor in the White House?

Facts: Those who committed 9/11 were primarily Saudis. One of the Paris terrorists got into Europe with a group of refugees. The woman who self-detonated was Parisian-born and began wearing a Muslim hijab only a month ago. What makes a person subscribe to such a nihilist belief system? What suddenly turns a modern youth into a kamikaze killer? These are the puzzles we must solve.

Winning the war against an ideology that rejects freedom and welcomes death will require something more than bombs and boots. It will require genius.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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