People regularly ask me the question (often in an attempt to trick me without taking the time to find real answers to it first), “What should we do in the face of ISIS?” underpinned by the ubiquitous ostensibly silver-bullet question, "What should have we done in the face of the Nazis?" But this implies that our side is the good side and their side is evil; it perpetuates the “us” vs. “them” myth that not only fuels animosity and rivalry and dehumanizes the Other so that their lives—and therefore deaths—have less value, but it also forces us to choose one of only two options, however deplorable they both are, while distracting us from considering other legitimate options more seriously.
Therefore, an equally legitimate question is, “What should Germany in the 30s and 40s have done in the face of Allied powers” and “What should Middle Easterners do in the face of Western occupying forces?”
With respect to WWII, of those countries that eventually formed the Allied forces, Britain and France controlled 30% of the world through ruthless and predatory colonization, “taking over the world” in ways that Hitler could only dream of; the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, had Nazi sympathies as did much of Wall Street; anti-Semitism—with its medieval roots—was just as pernicious in Allied nations as it was in Germany, never mind that the extent of the Holocaust wasn’t yet known when Allied forces intervened; Germany was forced to contend with the completely unjust and retributive conditions of the post-WWI Treaty of Versailles; Allied forces senselessly firebombed Dresden after the war was all but won and incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the only uses of nuclear weaponry in world history; and one of the Allied nations—Soviet Russia under Joseph Stalin—was, if we go by numbers alone, at least 5 times more murderous than Nazi Germany. With this in mind, who is the “we” in the question, “What should have *we* done?” Why should we align ourselves with this “we,” especially if it looks like the above description?
The same is true of ISIS and other such radicalized groups. Given the much more destructive impact of Western involvement in the Middle East—too much to get into here in any great detail, but civilian deaths of approx. 170,000 in Iraq, 140,000 in Syria, 45,000 in Afghanistan, etc., etc.; billions in transnational corporate profit from blatantly exploitative economic incursions in oil-rich countries; taxpayer-funded billions in profits by munitions and armaments corporations in what Robert Reich has called (riffing off Eisenhower) the military-industrial-congressional complex; allied with some of the most notorious human rights violators (Saudi Arabia, esp.) who are also the biggest financiers of the same terrorism we apparently want eliminated—what should these impoverished Middle Easterners do in the face of *us*? And, perhaps more importantly, why—again—should we align ourselves with this “us” when the damage we’ve caused is near infinitely worse than what they have caused?
For my part, I don’t want to be a part of either “us” or “them”; I want to undermine this us vs. them framework by instead becoming an agent of peace in the midst of the chaos, support those courageous and creative peacebuilders from any and all “sides” who bypass this unholy dichotomy of “us” or “them” in which both choices are at least equally as evil—ours, empirically at least, much worse—all without a weapon in their hands.
So, when considering the Nazis or ISIS, the question of what “we” should do is completely nonsensical; this “we” has no more moral credibility than “them,” and the very question is structured in such a way that it forces us to choose failure.