If a government is looking to go to war, a reason will always be found — if not fabricated outright. Teddy Roosevelt ginned up a separatist movement in the portion of Colombia that's now called Panama in order to hasten construction of the canal. Just last year, Turkey's spymaster was recorded offering to create a pretext for invading Syria, if that's what the politicians wanted: “I’ll send four men from Syria, if that’s what it takes," Hakan Fidan says on the tape, which prompted Turkey's Prime Minister to ban YouTube after it was posted there. "I’ll make up a cause of war by ordering a missile attack on Turkey."
So if any shadow of a doubt remained about the limited American appetite for a new conflict, it was erased by the profoundly muted public response to reports that the head of ISIS had repeatedly raped the U.S. hostage Kayla Mueller before her February death.
The reports, which surfaced in mid-August, are sourced to unnamed U.S. officials and to Mueller's parents, who confirmed to the Associated Press that American officials told them in June that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had several times taken her into a bedroom at the house where she was held captive along with two Yezidi girls, who shared what they had seen after escaping. "They told us that he married her, and we all understand what that means," her father Carl Mueller told AP. "Kayla did not marry this man," said her mother Marsha Mueller. "He took her to his room and he abused her and she came back crying."
The report was extraordinary on so many levels it's almost impossible to take in, yet it prompted little action from a war-weary American people.
There was no shortage of evidence about the group's depravity, sexual or otherwise. ISIS has boasted in its own magazine of kidnapping thousands of Yezidi women and girls as sex slaves to its fighters, promoting a "theology of rape" that the New York Times documented in appalling detail in an Aug. 13 article that quotes several who later escaped. The article's online version even included a YouTube post of ISIS fighters teasing one another lustily as they prepare for "slave-market day."
While the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria continues to call itself a religious movement, the evidence suggests it functions chiefly a military organization, organized on the lines of plunder and rapacity that defined conflict for most of human history, but that the modern world agreed to leave behind in consensus agreements like the Geneva Conventions.
Now that evidence takes the form of a black-bearded Iraqi man who calls himself Caliph Ibrahim, self-appointed successor to the Prophet Mohammad, forcing himself onto a young American woman who would have been 27 on Aug 14.
As a wartime atrocity, it crosses a line that would not even have occurred to ordinary mortals, or even the staff of the al-Hayat Media Center, as ISIS calls its public-relations office.
In its videos, ISIS constantly tries to top itself, straining to come up with more graphic and elaborate ways to provoke outrage. It certainly had a record to build on. Decapitating American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff brought a terrific response from the U.S., pushing President Obama toward involvement in a Syrian conflict he had avoided for years. Burning alive a caged Jordanian pilot on camera galvanized the overwhelming Sunni Hashemite Kingdom against the group. That particular spectacle provoked a torrent of vengeful rhetoric followed by a wave of air strikes (one of which may have resulted in Mueller's February death) but also marked what, in retrospect, appears to have been the high water mark for reaction.
The snuff videos kept coming — in one, victims are executed by detonating ropes of explosives around their neck; in another, their crowded cage is lowered into a swimming pool — but the later efforts brought less reaction, not more. In July, reports emerged that al-Baghdadi had told the ISIS media office to dial things back a bit, out of concern for the sensibilities of observant Muslims and any children who might be watching (if not, as in one video, actually doing the beheading). Perhaps there had been complaints. But the staged executions had begun to recall the elaborate perils James Bond faces in the lair of the criminal mastermind, or Batman and Robin at the close of Part One of ABC's vintage weekly series. There was a sense that ISIS was trying a little too hard.
If it country wants to go to war, it is perfectly capable of supplying accounts of atrocities, always readier to hand than accounts of weapons of mass destruction. When the blood is up, we are ready to believe what we want to believe — that Osama bin Laden picked up a gun and hid behind a woman as the SEALS stormed into his bedroom, that Iraqi soldiers made off with incubators in a Kuwait hospital, leaving premature babies to die. And now we have the Caliph as rapist, revealed neither by the ISIS media office nor by a White House news conference, but in the roundabout way of intelligence leaks.
It's a piece of information that helps justify the May Delta Force raid on the house where the assaults reportedly occurred, and the abduction of the occupant's wife for interrogation. It's an atrocity, in other words, that appears to be true, even though it's so marquee, so over the top that it also begs to be read as a provocation. Except that, right now, no one is in the mood to be provoked.