After what happened yesterday, it's little surprise that conflict is once again heating up in the Middle East. I'm talking about the grisly mass execution video released by ISIS Sunday, showing the collective beheading of 21 Coptic Christians believed to have been captured Egyptian nationals. Simply put, it was a grotesque display of the very same willingness to kill and exploit that the Islamic militant group has shown off time and time again now, and this time it's drawn more than just ire and stern words — Egypt and Libya bombed ISIS after the mass beheading video went public, reportedly hitting some of their training grounds and weapon stockpiles within the Libyan state.
It's a dramatic reaction, one that you must suspect ISIS saw coming, or wanted to provoke — as in so many solo execution videos in the past, the footage of the 21 beheadings released Sunday showed a sort of stage-managed production, with an English-speaking narrator lobbing threats and intimidating language at the viewer: "All crusaders: safety for you will be only wishes, especially if you are fighting us all together. Therefore we will fight you all together," the masked man said, as detailed by The Guardian.
It's awful, but it's hard to be surprised at this point. ISIS has been carrying out mass executions for a while now, but for some reason they haven't quite seared the consciousness the way that its individual hostage killings have — namely, those of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Alan Henning, David Haines, Peter Kassig, Haruna Yukawa, Kenji Goto, and Kayla Mueller.
The figures are often chilling. For example, all the way back in July, ISIS militants were already releasing videos showing off their noted disdain for human life — hundreds of Iraqi soldiers being lined up on the ground and killed, truck drivers being detained and slain, drive-by shootings, the whole deal.
They even reportedly executed a staggering 600+ Iraqi prisoners after seizing control of a prison in the battle-torn city of Mosul, according to Human Rights Watch. They followed this up in rapid fashion by reportedly shooting dead approximately 150 members of the Al Bu Nimr tribe in the Iraqi Anbar province. And I haven't even mentioning their genocidal campaign against the Yazidis.
The track record raises a couple pretty important questions, both for ISIS and for the rest of us: why do they prefer carrying out killings so publicly, in spite of the threat of provoking more aerial assaults, and why do we tend to notice such deaths so much quicker when it's a single, solitary face?
The first answer is, I admit, essentially unknowable. I can't really get into the head of a bloodthirsty terrorist foot-soldier any more than any other privileged, middle-class American could. But there are at least some clear financial motives, as demonstrated by their attempts to exact ransom for their kidnapped victims. This figured heavily into Japan's recent experience with ISIS, as they wanted $200 million for the life of journalist Kenji Goto. Japan ultimately balked at the demand, after which a video of Goto's execution was released.
The second question, however, is more self-reflective. Maybe it really is as simple as being more shocked and moved by personal, unique-seeming violence than we are by mass killings? There's a certain cultural privilege this could theoretically spring from — after all, the individual execution victims were mainly citizens of Western nations, with the exceptions of Goto, Yukawa, and burned-alive Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh. It could well be, sad as it is to consider, that we simply internalize news of terror-related deaths in the Middle East differently than when people who look like us, talk like us, and hail from the same locales as the victims, and that's a real shame.
In any event, this latest high-profile act of execution is having an enormous impact — while there's no forecasting the future for sure, Egypt's engagement with ISIS seems far from over, having launched a second round of airstrikes just hours after the initial ones on Monday.
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