Toppling ISIS & the Tyranny of Guilt


“But what we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be.”

- G.K. Chesterton

In the last 48 hours, the United States has become involved in attempts to stop the ruthless barbarism of ISIS in Iraq (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now known as Islamic State, but for simplicity further referred to as ISIS in this piece). This radical Islamic movement has spread with lightning efficiency across Syria, Iraq and into Lebanon. And hell has been in its wake. Pockets of Islamic State sympathizers have emerged with black flags flying in Germany, Great Britain and Australia. Their aim? Nothing less than to establish an Islamic Caliphate, operate society by draconian Sharia law and eradicate pesky infidels. They’ve blown up shrines (most notably, the tomb of the Biblical Jonah), defaced churches and ransacked monasteries. Shiites, “apostate” Sunnis have been targeted. Iraqi Christians, Kurds and other religious minorities (e.g., Yezidi) have been labeled, robbed, raped and/or executed. And just what does life under Sharia Law, under ISIS, look like? Consider the “Contract of the City” drawn up by ISIS for immediate implementation in the Nineveh province.

 1) All Muslims will be treated well, unless they are allied with oppressors or help criminals.Money taken from the government is now public. Whoever steals or loots faces amputations. Anyone who threatens or blackmails will face severe punishment (This section also quotes a verse from the Quran (Al-Ma’idah: 33) that says that criminals may be killed or crucified).

2) All Muslims are encouraged to perform their prayers with the group.

3) Drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes are banned.

4) Rival political or armed groups are not tolerated.

5) Police and military officers can repent, but anyone who insists upon apostasy faces death. 6) Sharia law is implemented. 7) Graves and shrines are not allowed, and will be destroyed. 8) A women are told that stability is at home and they should not go outside unless necessary.

9) They should be covered, in full Islamic dress.

10) Be happy to live in an Islamic land.

Thus, on the evening of August 7, President Obama stood before the nation and informed us of targeted airstrikes exacted on his order to ensure the safety of American personnel in Iraq and to defend humanitarian airdrops to the Yezidi (a Kurdish religious minority stranded and dying on a mountain surrounded by bloodthirsty ISIS fighters). The President spoke nobly of the reason for intervention,

“So let me be clear about why we must act, and act now. When we face a situation like we do on that mountain — with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help — in this case, a request from the Iraqi government — and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”


“But when the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action. That’s my responsibility as Commander-in-Chief. And when many thousands of innocent civilians are faced with the danger of being wiped out, and we have the capacity to do something about it, we will take action. That is our responsibility as Americans. That’s a hallmark of American leadership. That’s who we are.”

I couldn’t agree more. That IS who we are. I have written previously about the threat of ISIS (On ISIS and the Fearsome Rhyming of History) and the need for President Obama to address the plight of Iraqi Christians under ISIS (ISIS, President Obama & One  Simple Truth). Furthermore, my Patheos colleagues have written brilliantly on these matters (see the thoughtful pieces by Elizabeth Scalia, Tom MacDonald, Pia de Solenni, Fr. Dwight LongeneckerRebecca Hamilton, Frank Weathers, Sam Rocha & Mark Shea).

I have to admit that in the days and weeks of anxious breath-holding over the unfolding terror in Iraq, a heavy sigh was exhaled when the President spoke. It is heartening to see that he is beginning to understand the magnitude of what he once flippantly described as a “J.V.” (junior varsity team compared to the “Kobe Bryant” of Al Qaeda) entity on the world scene.

And yet, while addressing the reasons behind American action, the President couldn’t help but beg understanding to excuse what is now being done,

“I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world.”


“I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these. I understand that. I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that’s what we’ve done. As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq. And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.”


“Over the last several years, we have brought the vast majority of our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. And I’ve been careful to resist calls to turn time and again to our military, because America has other tools in our arsenal than our military.”

Okay. I get it. It makes sense to explain to Americans why it is necessary to risk the lives of soldier sons, daughters, mothers and fathers in a country half a world away. As a parent, if my child were a soldier, I would expect nothing less.

But I think his statements go beyond that.

I think this speaks to the issue of guilt. There is a subtle (or not so subtle) undertone to a lot of what this President says that seems apologetic for something we have done or something we have been. Now as a Catholic, I understand guilt. I don’t say that sarcastically, but rather, I say that, to a point, an element of guilt is healthy. If I sin and feel no guilt as a spur to confess my sin and receive absolution, I risk remaining in my sin which is a rather morbid state to live in. Furthermore, without honest confession, I risk further sin. I am likely to rationalize my actions and move forward with a warped conscience that fails to comport itself with the Will of God. And so I sin some more. And excuse some more. And sin some more. And on and on. So, I understand guilt.

But here is something I have come to realize. We were not made to reside in guilt. Guilt as a spur is an honest and healthy thing. Guilt as an immobilizing millstone is not. This is what I fear about our country.

A whole industry has been created around the guilt of America. Guilt about war. Guilt about race. Guilt about gender. Guilt about economics. Guilt about our values. Guilt about our lack of values. Guilt that we carry from generations past. Guilt that we have earned ourselves. You name it, we can feel guilty about it. After a while, the stifling cloud of our supposed wrongdoing obscures not only our virtues, but also our path forward.

Does that mean that we should simply be dismissive of guilt? Should we firmly fix our jaws and set our eyes forward with cock-sure confidence that we can do no wrong as a country? Of course not. No human being is infallible. Likewise, no country of human beings is infallible. And yet, every human being is redeemable. Is it possible that countries are as well?

As a country, sometimes we do too much and sometimes we do too little. Sometimes we are engaged in a nuclear arms race and sometimes we are in protracted counterinsurgencies. Sometimes we are friends with despots and sometimes we are enemies. Sometimes our interests are too near the surface and sometimes our interests are frustratingly absent. Our country can behave… well, it can behave like me. Earnest, inconsistent, honorable, yet imperfect.

But sometimes…yes, sometimes…we need to put the guilt and self-flagellation away. We need to remember that though we enslaved, we freed slaves, though we segregated, we desegregated, though we waged war, we rebuilt, though we financially crashed, we climbed up again. Peter wouldn’t have done Christ much good if he would have remained weeping in a room over the sin he committed against his Lord. Instead, he received redemption, walked with his still-stinging wounds and changed the world. Now, I am not calling America “Peter”. But I am saying that our country has its wounds (like we all do) and yet shouldn’t stop striving to live up to its principles in spite of them. As Flannery O’Connor once noted,

“Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.”

On the notion of untethered guilt, French essayist Pascal Bruckner once observed in his book, The Tyranny of Guilt,

“Nothing is more Western than hatred of the West, that passion for cursing and lacerating ourselves…But instead of coming out of this process greater and purified, [the West] devours itself in a kind of self-cannibalism and takes a morose pleasure in annihilating itself. Hypercriticism eventuates in self-hatred, leaving behind it only ruins.”

As we face vicious threats like ISIS, it is importantnay, it is absolutely vitalthat we know who are. Yes, we must correct ourselves where we need correcting, but we must then confidently move forward toward the sure lights of dignity, justice and truth. Guilt, we must remember, should be a spur, not a millstone.

In the end, Mr. Bruckner may have been onto something. We have our work cut out for us. That is for sure. But perhaps, just perhaps (if Mr. Bruckner would indulge my borrowing his phrase), before toppling the emerging tyranny of ISIS, we must first topple another grave threat: The Tyranny of Guilt.


All I Aspire To This Lent I Learned From a Saint & a Twelve-Year Old
ISIS, Evil & the Crisis of Moral Relativism
On ISIS and the Fearsome Rhyming of History
On Suffering, St. Bartholomew & the Murder of James Foley
  • Joe DeCaro

    The situation in Iraq is eerily similar to what happened at Khartoum when a Western power half-heartedly opposed religious fanatics under a self proclaimed Muslim “Mahdi”.

    Too little, too late, then and now.

  • Donalbain

    Is it wrong to kill people who believe and express a faith that you disagree with?

    • Deanjay1961

      It is wtong to kill people FOR believing and expressing a faith that you disagree with.

      • Donalbain

        So, the Catholic Church was wrong when it killed heretics?

        • Deanjay1961

          Yes, it was. I hope it doesn’t derail your train of questions if I note that the same is true of ISIL.

        • BorderColliesRules

          I missed the part where the Catholics were mentioned in this article.

          Perhaps you could share that bit with us?

  • BorderColliesRules

    It’s always been a given that Islam is a bigoted homophobic death cult, IS simply takes to the Nth Degree. What blows my mind is all the hand wringing found among so-called progressives. Islam has either been given official victim status or simply the religion that has no name. …

    Excellent multi part documentary series done by Vice about the ISIS:

    • leilaleis

      Well into the 19th century, Christianity was also a bigoted, homophobic death cult. In fact, I’d go beyond that: Islam was far less of a death cult than Christianity until the 20th century.

      A few examples: Ottomans decriminalized homosexuality in the 1850s, decades before the British did.

      In terms of historic tolerance for other religions, see Istanbul, where I grew up, with its 17th century Catholic churches, its functioning synagogues.

      The Yezidi, a fascinating group that has a very cool take on Satan, were allowed to survive in what is now Northern Iraq/Southeastern Turkey. The Zoroasterians were allowed to survive in Iran.

      Why do you think this happened?

      Look, I’m not completely disagreeing with you. TODAY Islam is a bigoted, homophobic death cult. It is despicable. That was not always so, however. History matters.

      • BorderColliesRules

        Nice, the “Whataboutism” argument: “It represents a case of tu quoque or the appeal to hypocrisy, a logical fallacy which attempts to discredit the opponent’s position by asserting the opponent’s failure to act consistently in accordance with that position, without directly refuting or disproving the opponent’s initial argument.”

        Thanks for stoping by….

        • Fearitself73

          It’s not whataboutism if the objection disproves your argument.

          • BorderColliesRules

            “If” is the relative term. And it didn’t.

            But thanks for stoping by!

          • Fearitself73

            “Stopping”. Two letter P not one.

            And it did refute your argument.

            And thank you.

          • BorderColliesRules

            Minor grammar corrections do not equate a successful rebuttal.

            So far you’ve added nothing to this discussion. So how about, piss off troll.

          • Fearitself73

            I’ve pointed out that another commentator’s points refuted your own.

            I’ve pointed out that your response “Whataboutery” didn’t apply to the criticism leveled at your argument.

            All you’ve done is make a poor observation about the nature of Islam, failed to engage with criticism of said observation, act as if this blog belonged to you (“Thanks for dropping by” and “Piss off” ) and swear.

          • BorderColliesRules

            Having spent time in the ME and observed firsthand life within an Islamic dominated region, I know exactly what I’m talking about.

            And I’m not here to be your friend, play kiss-kiss, nice-nice and hand out circlejerk handjobs to idiots who’ve haven’t a clue as to what they’re discussing. Head over to HuffPo if you need to validate your “feelings”….

            Now I get it. You’re a Muslim attempting to derail the discussion concerning ISIS!

            Your tweets say everything, troll….

          • Fearitself73

            Comments on a blog are not tweets…

            I’m not Muslim. But there’s nothing wrong if I was a Muslim. You seem to hate all Muslims. And yet you spent time in the ME. Did you not meet any good Muslims?

            And again I need to remind you that this isn’t your private space.

          • BorderColliesRules

            Something about all that misogyny and bigotry towards LGBT individuals found within Islam rubs me rather wrong…

          • Fearitself73

            Oh sure, I’m no fan of Islamic theology and cultural practices. But misogyny and bigotry towards LGBT individuals isn’t confined to Islam.

          • BorderColliesRules

            Outside of urban centers in Turkey, how many other Islamic dominated regions may women live free and LGBT individuals live and love openly…..

          • Fearitself73

            “LGBT individuals live and love openly…..”

            Outside of “gay villages” how many gay couples have you seen love openly on the streets of America?

            Gay liberation has been a welcome feature in the West. But let’s not kid ourselves that we’re hugely superior to other places. It’s only recently that gay sex has been decriminalized and same sex marriage is only now slowly taking hold on across various Western and non-western countries. And under some States employment laws isn’t still legal to sack someone for being gay?

            So let’s have some humility please.

          • BorderColliesRules

            Well, living in a rural mtn community in Idaho, there a number of openly gay couples here and they are quite comfortable living here.

    • Mark

      Another unfair broad-brushed indictment of Islam, as leilaleis has pointed out. As with most religions, there are extremist groups. If you use the Westboro Baptist Church as your model of Christianity, it, too, looks like a bigoted homophobic death cult. Historically, Islam has been much more tolerant of Christians and Jews than the other way around.

      • BorderColliesRules

        How many members are left in the Westboro church? What, maybe a 100? ISIS numbers in the tens of thousands. With an estimated 1.6 billion members and figure around 10-15% hardcore/conservative/extremists, that’s a quite a few Muslim extremists to worry about.

        As for its historical “tolerance”, try another one. First, that was “historical” and certainly not the case in this day and age. Secondly, that “tolerance” was via a tax. Which is exactly what ISIS is requiring within Mosul at the moment.

        Thanks for stoping by!

  • Deanjay1961

    We should evacuate the Yezidis and Iraqi Christians and give them refugee status. We can do an airlift.

  • Jeff

    If you want to see just how deeply the muhammadan persecution complex, and the subsequent winking at the sins of jihadists, has penetrated into even the ‘moderate’ expressions of that religion, look no further than some of the articles on Patheos’ Muslim site. They’re more than a little scary.

  • Fearitself73

    You know you’re crazy when even Al Qaeda think you’re crazy. There’s a media and political storm in Australia over pictures of an Australian citizen, now IS fighter, taking a picture of his 3 year old son holding aloft a severed head.

    Nazis of our times.

  • MarcusRegulus

    Martyr: A Witness, someone who is willing to die for their beliefs.
    Fanatic: A Murderer, someone who is willing to kill others for their beliefs.