Photo Courtesy of PBS

April 7, 2016


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I have often wondered why the world insists that ISIS is not a state. I understand that there is power in being a state and giving any power to these terrorists seems inherently wrong. Yet, terror seems to be at the heart of many nations’ foundings, and while it seems to be on a new scale, when did we as a world forget our own history? Was it once the fear was gone? The danger of the past becomes more forgivable, especially when you have to live with the product. For instance, the French Revolution utilized a new killing machine to make beheadings more efficient. It created a wave of French refugees fleeing the country and was so awful it is known simply as “the terror.” In Russia, revolutionaries took the entire royal family and shot them like animals. They then proceeded to starve millions of their citizens to death. All of these actions were used to form the modern state, yet we accept Russia and France without question.

Maybe they are easier to forgive because these were internal conflicts. The state-contained terror is frightening, but easier to forgive from an outsider’s perspective. While the French were being terrorized, the average Spaniard wasn’t too bothered. As long as these conflicts did not bleed into the global sphere, outsiders did not do much other than pass judgment on the perpetrators and console the victims once the dust settled.

Then, what about a far-reaching revolution? The United States springs to mind, but the revolution took place when America was still a colony of the British Empire. So technically, it was still an internal matter. It was a disgruntled child rising up against the established parental regime. However, the guerilla tactics of the American revolutionaries were aimed to instill fear among the red coats. Terror was a tool; a British soldier walking from Lexington to Concord would not have hesitated to describe the men shooting at him from behind trees and stone walls as terrorists, if the term was used at the time.

But we don’t call these first Americans terrorists; they are freedom fighters and rebels. Mostly because of the old mantra, “history is written by the winners.” For those Americans to establish a new country, they needed a usable past and a world willing to do business with them. No one in the modern world would benefit from calling the founding fathers of America terrorists, so no one does.

At this point, we have to investigate: what makes a state? Is it the people, a geographical area or something else entirely? With the rise of the nation state in the last 19th and early 20th century, everybody wanted their own country. The empires of Europe smashed into Bulgaria, Croatia, Austria, Serbia, etc. The Balkans seemed to be formed along ethnic lines – a country was therefore determined by traditions, a unifying narrative. Except these very same Balkans fought like wolves over borders, so based on that behavior, a country is determined by geographical features. Yet, other countries, like Armenia and Israel, were formed because of extreme suffering – because their people deserved – a country. There seemed to be no connection between the factors that  prompted states to be created. Nothing that is, except for the fact that, all forming states were either a direct or indirect formation of terror.

If we acknowledge that states are founded, to a certain degree, through terror, then we have to seriously look at what stops ISIS from becoming an acknowledged state. Perhaps it is the difference between using terrorism as a state, instead of terrorism to implement a state. The subtle distinction has incredible repercussions. While the people of France implemented the “national razor” to push change, their end goal was a peaceful regime. ISIS, on the other hand, wishes to extend its violence to eradicate a way of life. Once they are founded, the west will not have to do business with them in the global sphere; they will still be the enemy. There is no easy answer; the concept of a state is still a relatively new one and, it would seem, a very puzzling one. While ISIS seems horrifying in all lights, their claim to statehood reveals the flaws in our own conception of it. Are we hypocrites to deny their claim? I don’t know. But I do know that the question of what makes a state needs to be addressed if we are going to decide who gets a country.
Sarah Palmer is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Her spirit animal is President William Henry Harrison, reminding her that even the biggest success can be dampened by the wrong outfit choice. She spends far too much time watching old movies, listening to jazz and trying not to do anything. Pop Culture, Politics and Perception appears on alternate Thursdays this semester. She can be reached at [email protected].