We're playing into ISIS' hands

Story highlights

  • Sally Kohn: Overreacting to ISIS' atrocities is what the terrorists want to aid them in recruiting
  • She says the West will not win against ISIS this way; it will only make the situation worse

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)"We cannot kill our way out of this war," State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said on Tuesday. "We need in the medium to longer term to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups, whether it's lack of opportunity for jobs ..." Since then, Harf has been attacked by conservatives, particularly for her jobs remarks. But she's right in her assessment.

Sally Kohn
And, I would suggest, she should have gone further: There's reason to think that bombing is exactly what ISIS wants us to do. Why else would they be goading us into it?
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It's called "terrorism" for a reason. The goal is to cause terror, to scare people into acting -- or overreacting. The most recent ISIS propaganda video was produced in English for a reason. It seems they want the West to react and take the bait. And we are obliging.
    Months ago, a war-weary United States was suddenly whipped back into a pro-military-action frenzy. Why? Writing in Mother Jones, Kevin Drum, explained: "All it took was a carefully stagecrafted beheading video and the usual gang of conservative jingoists to exploit it."
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    Longtime defense analyst Kenneth Brower made a similar point: "A YouTube video of a beheading forces the U.S. president to go to 'war' in order to avoid being called weak by his domestic political opposition. That's not leadership! Worse, the so-called hawks push for deeper involvement irrespective of military reality. They live in a fantasy world of U.S. military exceptionalism."
    ISIS then beheaded a British journalist, so the British stepped up its military support in the campaign against ISIS. Then ISIS goaded Jordan with a video of the hideous immolation of a Jordanian pilot. Jordan responded with bombs. Now ISIS has just goaded Egypt with a mass execution ... and Egypt has, predictably, responded. Anyone who doesn't see a pattern here isn't looking.
    Yes, the violent terrorism of ISIS is medieval and inhumane. That doesn't mean it can't also be rational.
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    And this is where the assessment of Harf and the Obama administration -- and Republicans calling for even further military action -- falls short of the mark. Not only can we not kill our way out of this war, but killing may exacerbate the situation.
    Why would ISIS goad the world to attack it? To be legitimized as a forceful threat, while at the same time provoking actions that lead to more civilian casualties when nations strike back. This provokes more rage at the West and its regional allies, drawing more martyrs and sympathizers to the terrorist cause.
    And we are playing into ISIS' hands: In Syria, ISIS had to put up giant screens to show its beheading videos. But in the West, mainstream media is doing it for them, covering ISIS propaganda as 24/7 fear- mongering under the banner of news.
    Effective counterterrorism strategy begins with not doing what the terrorists want us to do. But right now, we are the dog being wagged by the tail of ISIS.
    After all, while the capacity to commit terrorism likely involves some psychosis, terrorists don't just spontaneously spring from the ground like demonic daisies. In 2006, the National Intelligence Estimate compiled by America's top counterterrorism agencies found that the war in Iraq had, according to a Washington Post article, "become a primary recruitment vehicle for violent Islamic extremists, motivating a new generation of potential terrorists around the world whose numbers may be increasing faster than the United States and its allies can reduce the threat."
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    ISIS and its ilk want to concoct an existential war between their brand of fundamentalist Islam and the rest of the globe. The leadership of ISIS may do abhorrent things because of a crazy adherence to an apocalyptic interpretation of Islam, as Graeme Wood has just written in The Atlantic. But they don't just slaughter people, they produce hi-definition, theatrically staged, English-language videos of the slaughter, as well as a propaganda magazine in English.
    America's homeland, thankfully, has not been the direct target of ISIS violence, but we have been the target of this propaganda. It's working. Recruits are flocking to ISIS.
    This is not to say there's no military solution to ISIS, though many experts such as Brower certainly doubt that such tactics will work. It may ultimately be smarter to push a political solution, such as the division of Iraq and the region into new sectarian-based states, as has been proposed in the past. Whatever the solution, what is clear is that the values and vision of America and our allies in the region should be proactively driving the agenda rather than a reactionary furor whipped up at the whim of ISIS.
    We have to stop broadcasting their propaganda. We have to stop responding with bombs every time they provoke us with videotaped slayings. We have to stop being weak and fearful in the face of ISIS' threats. Otherwise, no matter how much territory we bomb, ISIS will keep winning.
    In fact, if you think the only way to defeat them is with bombing, they've already won.