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Timid on Tibet

On September 3rd, the world watched with fascination and at least a little trepidation as China marked the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender during World War II with a parade of troops and military hardware. The next day, the Pentagon acknowledged Chinese naval warships had entered US territorial waters in the Bering Strait. It was not a subtle message, even if Xi Jinping, dressed in a black Mao suit, did use the word peace more than a dozen times in his speech to mark the occasion.

The Fool, Russia, and Ukraine

With The Fool (Durak), 34-year-old Russian film director Yuri Bykov has officially become his country’s Cassandra.

The New York Times says the film is about corruption in a squalid Russia. Bykov’s 2014 film is about much more than that. The Fool is an obvious allegory of the rottenness—and coming collapse—of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The Clarion Call of ISIS

British Muslims are losing the war against ISIS. So says Sunny Hundal in a new essay in Quartz magazine.

“For the vast majority of Muslims who disdain its ideology,” he writes, “the challenge that [ISIS] presents to them is deadlier and far more difficult because they are caught in a pincer movement: with public and government suspicion on one side, and a seductive and supposedly empowering ideology on the other.”

According to the FBI, around 200 American Muslims have left the United States to join ISIS. And according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 600-700 British Muslims have left the United Kingdom just this year alone. The grand total of British Muslims running off to join ISIS is well over 1,000.

Compared to just 200 Americans.

The number of Muslims in each country is almost identical at roughly 2.7 million apiece. So British Muslims at least five times more likely to join ISIS than American Muslims.

Why? For at least three reasons. As Hundal notes, two ideas have been bouncing around in the British Muslim community for years—that Muslims should travel abroad to defend their fellow Muslims when necessary and to strive for a caliphate—an Islamic government—if and whenever possible.

American Muslims don’t find these ideas quite so compelling, and I suspect that’s for reason number three: The United States is a nation of immigrants. A foreign-born person can become American in a way that he or she simply can’t become English or Scottish or Welsh or French or German or anything else except maybe Canadian. National identities in the United States and Canada are based far less on ethnicity and religion than in the old world, where national identities have much longer histories that stretch back hundreds and sometimes even thousands of years.

Assimilating into mainstream American culture isn’t easy, but there’s a well-worn path trod by nearly every family in this country. The process itself is part of our identity.

Both British and American Muslims are more likely to join ISIS than Al Qaeda. Which isn’t the least bit surprising. Al Qaeda does nothing but kill people. Its record is naught but destruction.

But ISIS has actually built something. It’s appalling, of course. The Islamic state is a blood-soaked totalitarian prison. But so was the Soviet Union, and it, too, inspired huge numbers of people all over the world to take up arms and violently create knock-offs, from Cuba and Vietnam to South Yemen and even Somalia and Ethiopia.

We should never underestimate the appeal of a utopian fantasy in the human psyche even if it is drenched in blood.

Some people who find these utopias stirring deny that they’re drenched in blood. Others make excuses. (You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.) Still others are attracted to these ideas and places because they’re drenched in blood. Jihadi John, the Kuwait-British man who beheaded a string of jumpsuit-clad journalists and aid workers on camera, is clearly some kind of psychopath. So are the ISIS fighters who serially rape their captured “war brides.” So is Lisa Borch, the 15-year old Danish girl who fell in love with an Islamist extremist and stabbed her mother to death with a kitchen knife.

There’s an upside to the exodus, I suppose. Britain and the United States are better off without these people. If they didn’t run off to Syria, they’d be living down the street. We’d have fewer Jihadi Johns and more Lisa Borchs.

Syria sure as hell isn’t better off with these people as “immigrants,” but they’ll eventually die there when the Islamic State, like every other monstrous utopian entity, either destroys itself from within or is destroyed from without by fed-up outsiders.

When it finally happens, whether it’s next year or two decades from now, the British and American Muslim communities will be, on average, a little more politically moderate and sane than they are now. 

China Official Creates Controversy in Hong Kong

Tuesday, Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s chief executive, lent support to controversial remarks made Saturday by China’s top official in Hong Kong. Zhang Xiaoming, head of Beijing’s Liaison Office, precipitated a new controversy over the weekend with comments about the supremacy of the powers of the city’s top political official.

Zhang said the CE, as the chief executive is sometimes called, has “a special legal position which overrides administrative, legislative, and judicial organs.”

Beijing, in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, promised Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” until 2047. The city has been a special administrative region of the People’s Republic since 1997.

Ukrainians Impatient With Pace of Reforms

Ukrainians are angry. The standard refrains are that there are no reforms and that Ukraine is worse off than it used to be.

Such deep-seated anger was at the root of the violent demonstration at the Parliament a few weeks ago. Most commentators focused on the violence and its implications for Ukraine’s democracy. In fact, despite the Western media’s bizarre infatuation with Ukraine’s radical right, it is tiny and poses no threat to the system.

Far more worrisome is the widespread popular anger and growing popular radicalism.

Angry people who make radical demands—of the we-want-everything-immediately variety—and mistrust their leaders make for illegitimate and unstable rule. At some point, illegitimate and unstable rule can crumble. If Ukraine ever comes unglued, it’ll be because popular anger produced a third Maidan that destroyed Ukraine’s fledgling institutions and either created chaos or brought radicals to power. All Ukrainians would lose. Vladimir Putin would win.

Russia Moves Into Syria

Russia is shipping massive quantities of offensive weapons, materiel and soldiers to Syria.

The massive Condor flights carrying all kinds of supplies now arrive twice a day through Iran and Iraq into Bassel Al-Assad International Airport outside the port city of Latakia. The cargo is for Russian soldiers, not Syrian government forces, but is seen as a build-up to aid Bashar Assad's embattled regime. 

The defense official, briefed on the latest satellite photos of the Syrian coastline, said: "This is the largest deployment of Russian forces outside the former Soviet Union since the collapse of the USSR." 

The only thing surprising about this is that it took so long.  

Syria has been a Russian client state since the 1970s. The reason for its original alliance with Soviet Russia is obvious enough. The Arab Socialist Baath Party was a natural ally of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Syria’s take on secularism and socialism isn't as severe as Soviet Russia’s, but Syria was ideologically much closer to Russia than to, say, Sweden. That was for damn sure.

And Russia wanted proxies and influence wherever it could get them even if the ideological overlap was just partial. It still does. All great powers and aspiring great powers and used-to-be great powers are interested in proxies and influence wherever they can get them.

Russia has what is sometimes referred to as its only Mediterranean naval base in Syria’s medium-sized city of Tartus, but it’s not much more than a gas station and repair shop. Russia’s big warships won’t even fit there. It’s not particularly important. What matters far more to Russia is its influence in the world, which is still drastically down from the great and terrible days of the Soviet Union.

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, of course, wants all the help he can get at this late date. He has been getting it from Iran and Hezbollah all along, and from Russia at least diplomatically. He’d certainly take help from the United States at this point. He wanted help from the United States at the very beginning. That’s why he characterized the upheaval in Syria as a war against terrorism long before a single ISIS or Nusra fighter fired a shot, back when it was just him against unarmed protesters demanding some kind of political reform.

Assad might even take help from the Israelis at this point. Not that the Israelis would lift a finger to assist Hezbollah’s co-patron and co-armorer. That won’t happen under any circumstances.

So here comes daddy Russia, riding to the rescue of its old totalitarian client.

Maybe the Russians will go ahead and smash ISIS. Maybe they’ll do the dirty work that has the West so fatigued. Maybe they’ll do everybody a favor.

The result won’t be pretty, however. Soviet Russia did everybody a favor when it smashed through the eastern front of Hitler’s Nazi regime, but Poland sure paid the price. As did a lot of other countries in Europe.

The Wall Street Journal isn’t happy about this at all.

For 70 years American Presidents from both parties have sought to thwart Russian influence in the Middle East. Harry Truman forced the Red Army to withdraw from northern Iran in 1946. Richard Nixon raised a nuclear alert to deter Moscow from resupplying its Arab clients during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Even Jimmy Carter threatened military force to protect the Persian Gulf after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

America wasn’t quite as burned out then.

We’re all tired of trying to fix a part of the world that refused to be fixed, but nature abhors a vacuum.

Chinese Warships Sail into American Waters

Last Thursday, the Pentagon confirmed five Chinese warships had sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Alaskan coast. The US, in accordance with international law, claims as territorial water a band of sea extending 12 miles from its shores. The Chinese vessels, therefore, entered American waters.

US authorities did not grant permission for the Chinese transit, and the waters in question are not an internationally recognized strait. The Pentagon did not complain, however, maintaining the warships “transited expeditiously and continuously through the Aleutian Island chain in a manner consistent with international law.” As a US official explained to CNN, the intrusion constituted “innocent passage.”

Beirut Chokes on Its Own Filth

Since the time of antiquity, almost every place in the Middle East has suffered from way too much government, but Lebanon is an intriguing exception. It’s the one country in the region that doesn’t have nearly enough.

Its government is so weak and dysfunctional that it can no longer carry out the most basic functions. Months have now passed since municipal workers have removed trash from garbage cans and dumpsters in Beirut. Mountains of garbage the size of buildings are piled up everywhere. The city—which looks like a fascinating and sometimes beautiful hybrid of Miami, Paris, Baghdad, and Tel Aviv—reeks like the worst slum in the world.

Surely by now the place is a biohazard.

Anti-government protestors and even rioters have taken to the streets with the message, “You Stink.” People from every political sect and every conceivable political party from the communists and Hezbollah to right-wing Christians and anti-sectarian liberals have banded together to demand the government take out the garbage—not just the trash on the streets, but the entire political class.

Anti-government riots are generally the result of real or perceived political repression, but the Lebanese are rebelling against a vacuum.

Lebanon was purposely designed to have weak state, not so much because the Lebanese are naturally libertarian (though many of them are, in their own Levantine way) but because the country is too diverse to cohere around a central leadership. It’s divided more or less equally between Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and Christians. A smaller Druze minority makes things even more interesting and complicated.

Each of Lebanon’s three principle religious communities have different social and political values, and a weak central government allows each some measure of self-determination in its local and social affairs. A weak central state also prevents one sect from riding roughshod over the others. That’s the theory anyway. If one sect tries to seize total control, war is inevitable.

And so, for the most part, nobody tries. Not even Hezbollah has attempted to impose its rule over the entire country like its patron regime in Iran. Any attempt to Iranianize the whole society would be met with ferocious bloody resistance from just about everyone. Hezbollah knows this. So Hezbollah does not even bother. Despite Hezbollah’s fanaticism, most of Beirut remains as decadent and freewheeling as Amsterdam.

So the system works, sort of. It has so far prevented Lebanon from being taken over by someone like Saddam Hussein or Moammar Qaddafi. Syria’s Assad family ruled there for a while, but only because the Syrian army conquered the place with overwhelming force from the outside. Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party—created and maintained by Syria’s Alawite religious minority—is from somewhere else. It was an invasive species, an alien transplant, and in 2005 the Lebanese vomited it out.

So Lebanon figured out a way to free itself from the despotism endemic to the rest of the region. Hooray for the weak state. But the state is so weak that the capital is now drowning in its own filth.

How much government is just the right amount? We all have opinions, but nobody really knows. It goes without saying that Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union had far too much government while Somalia, with its bloody anarchy, has the opposite problem.

What about countries closer to the center? The United States or Canada? The United Kingdom or The Netherlands?

The Middle East’s options are more extreme. Would you rather live amidst Lebanon’s mild anarchy or Jordan’s moderate authoritarianism? Jordan isn’t experiencing much trouble with garbage collection these days, but the Jordanians can’t vote for or against the king, and there isn’t much in the way of freedom of speech.

It’s a bit of a quandary, isn’t it? “Even Syrians fleeing war pronounce themselves shocked at the lack of infrastructure in Lebanon,” Anne Barnard writes in The New York Times. “Some of them, however, express a hint of jealousy that Lebanon’s weak state allows freedoms unavailable in Syria, where protests were crushed with deadly force.”

Lebanon is obviously a better place than Syria right now despite all its problems. No one would flee the Beirut garbage dump for the killing fields of Aleppo. Lebanon, at least, isn’t a war zone. The government isn’t dropping barrel bombs on residential neighborhood, and there’s no genocidal terrorist army forcing children to execute its enemies.

But the World Economic Forum ranks Lebanon’s government as the fourth-least efficient in the entire world.

There are some advantages to that. You can live more or less like a free human being there. I know because I did it myself in 2005 and 2006. Peter Grimsditch, a British transplant who used to run Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper, once told me that he’d never been anywhere in the world where he felt the power of the state bearing down on him less.

There are some serious disadvantages, though, too.

There’s the trash problem, of course.

And the fact that an Iranian-sponsored militia—Hezbollah—has managed to amass more military capacity than the national army.

And here’s a fun fact: Lebanon hasn’t had a president for more than a year. Imagine a chronically authoritarian place like Egypt having that problem.

And imagine if Barack Obama were followed in office by…nobody. Not Hillary Clinton. Not Jeb Bush. Not Donald Trump. Not Bernie Sanders.

Nobody.

The idea is actually appealing in some ways. Americans could probably muddle through for years with a ghost Oval Office.

But imagine if that also meant no new power plants for the next 30 years. No road repairs. No functioning water system. No trash collection. Militias rising up everywhere that start wars with Canada and Mexico.

The country might yearn for some kind of dictator after putting up with that kind of dysfunction for too many years.

Will that happen in Lebanon? I doubt it. The Lebanese wouldn’t be able to agree on which kind of dictator they’d tolerate anyway. But honestly I have no idea. It’s a strange place. There’s nowhere else in the world—certainly nowhere else in the Middle East—quite like it.

For Lebanon to resolve the root cause of most of its problems, Lebanon will have to stop being Lebanon. But that’s not going to happen any more than Syria will stop being Syria or Iraq will stop being Iraq.

Continuing Injustice in Hong Kong

Hong Kong authorities have charged three leaders of last fall’s massive pro-democracy demonstrations with offenses that could send them to prison for as long as five years. The charges stemmed from the night last September when Joshua Wong, Alex Chow, and Nathan Law scaled a fence and broke into a public area outside the city’s government offices known as Civic Square. Others participated but these three were charged because they led the action.

The students were leaders of a class boycott called in response to Beijing’s decision, the previous June, to block democratic elections in 2017 for the territory’s top official, the chief executive. Beijing wanted to give every Hong Kong adult a vote—but also control the slate of candidates, with loyalty to Beijing and the Communist Party as a litmus test.

Ukraine’s Complicated History

The following is an interview with George Liber, a professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

***

MOTYL: Your forthcoming book, Total Wars and the Making of Modern Ukraine, 1914–1954, promises to revise much of the conventional wisdom about Ukraine. What are your main arguments?

LIBER: Between 1914 and 1954, the Ukrainian-speaking territories in East Central Europe suffered almost 15 million “excess deaths” as well as numerous large-scale evacuations and forced population transfers. These losses were the consequences of two world wars, the Holodomor, the Holocaust, violent upheavals, and revolutions.

ISIS Wages Cultural Genocide in Palmyra

They finally did it. The bastards destroyed Palmyra’s Temple of Bel.

We all knew it was coming in May when ISIS conquered the ancient Roman-era city an hour’s drive east of the Syrian city of Homs.

At first nothing happened. They promised they’d leave Palmyra alone, that they wouldn’t lay waste to its offensive pre-Islamicness the way they wrecked the Iraqi cities of Hatra and Nimrud. 

I almost wrote that I was wrong after I predicted Palmyra’s destruction in City Journal, but then I thought, no, this is ISIS we’re talking about. Of course they’re going blow up the city. They’re just waiting for short attention-spanned Westerners to stop paying attention.

The West is not going to ride to the rescue. Neither will anyone else. (Well, maybe the Kurds will. They’re among the very best people in the Middle East. For so many reasons.)

But the impulse is there, isn’t it? At least a little bit? Who can witness this sort of thing and just shrug it off? Human life is more important than buildings, of course, but the Temple of Bel is not “just a building.” It isn’t a gas station. It isn’t a Wal-mart. It belongs to the heritage of mankind. Even Bashar al-Assad’s gangster regime is genuinely shocked and appalled. 

In March of 2001, the Taliban destroyed the ancient Buddha statues at Bamiyan. They used dynamite. They used anti-aircraft guns. It took them weeks of dedicated effort, but they finally got the job done.

They destroyed those statues for one reason only: they were not Islamic.

One of my best friends was so aghast he told me that the United States should invade Afghanistan. I said he was nuts. We’re not going to invade a country on the other side of the planet because some primitive yahoos blew up some statues. And I was right. We did not invade of Afghanistan because some primitive yahoos blew up some statutes.

But I’ll never forget what he said next.

People who commit cultural genocide will mass-murder humans. War is inevitable.

Six months later, the United States invaded Afghanistan after the most devastating attack on American soil in history.

I was right. But so was he. 

The Taliban’s cultural genocide was just a prelude to what would come later.

Three months later, Paul Berman wrote “Terror and Liberalism,” one the most brilliant essays of his career which he later expanded into an even more brilliant book, comparing Al Qaeda’s ideology to Nazism, Communism, and General Franco’s fascism in Spain. The details of the ideologies are all strikingly different, of course, but they’re all just different flavors of modern totalitarianism with identical baseline characteristics.

The shared ideas were these: There exists a people of good who in a just world ought to enjoy a sound and healthy society. But society's health has been undermined by a hideous infestation from within, something diabolical, which is aided by external agents from elsewhere in the world. The diabolical infestation must be rooted out. Rooting it out will require bloody internal struggles, capped by gigantic massacres. It will require an all-out war against the foreign allies of the inner infestation--an apocalyptic war, perhaps even Apocalyptic with a capital A. (The Book of the Apocalypse, as André Glucksmann has pointed out, does seem to have played a remote inspirational role in generating these twentieth-century doctrines.) But when the inner infestation has at last been rooted out and the external foe has been defeated, the people of good shall enjoy a new society purged of alien elements--a healthy society no longer subject to the vibrations of change and evolution, a society with a single, blocklike structure, solid and eternal.

Each of the twentieth-century antiliberal movements expressed this idea in its own idiosyncratic way. The people of good were described as the Aryans, the proletarians, or the people of Christ. The diabolical infestation was described as the Jews, the bourgeoisie, the kulaks, or the Masons. The bloody internal battle to root out the infestation was described as the "final solution," the "final struggle," or the "Crusade." The impending new society was sometimes pictured as a return to the ancient past and sometimes as a leap into the sci-fi future. It was the Third Reich, the New Rome, communism, the Reign of Christ the King. But the blocklike characteristics of that new society were always the same. And with those ideas firmly in place, each of the antiliberal movements marched into battle.

And each of those totalitarian movements started unspeakable wars that killed millions upon millions of people.

Here we are again, a decade and a half later, and ISIS—Al Qaeda 2.0—is doing in Syria what the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

At the moment, the West would likely tolerate ISIS going full Pol Pot and genociding Syria off the map for a while, but these people are inevitably going to screw with us.

We’re not going to invade Syria to save some old buildings even if they are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but just like in 2001, at some point down the line, war is inevitable.

Beijing at the Corner of Desperation and Panic

Monday, China Central Television, the state broadcaster, carried the “confession” of a weary Wang Xiaolu. The journalist from Caijing Magazine, a prominent financial publication, admitted to adding his “own subjective judgment” to information he obtained “through private channels” about the central government’s stock rescue plan.

Wang’s crime, in Beijing’s eyes, was to pen a July 20th article stating that the China Securities Regulatory Commission was considering halting intervention in the Chinese stock market. Since early July, the central government had been buying blue chip stocks in an effort to keep prices high.

Guess Who’s Coming to China’s Military Parade

Tuesday, Beijing revealed the list of countries participating in its military parade, scheduled for September 3rd, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Japan in the Second World War.

Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Mongolia, Pakistan, Serbia, Tajikistan, and Russia will each send about 75 marchers. Afghanistan, Cambodia, Fiji, Laos, Vanuatu, and Venezuela will contribute about seven troops each. The 17 countries, Beijing said, will chip in about 1,000 soldiers.

This is an odd group celebrating the end of World War II in the Pacific. Fiji remained untouched in the struggle, but can at least say it’s in the Pacific. Belarus, on the other hand, resides in Europe. It did not exist 70 years ago. When Japanese diplomats signed instruments of surrender on the deck of the Missouri, the territory that now comprises Belarus was part of the Soviet Union.

Back in the USSR

By now you know that a Russian military kangaroo court sentenced Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov and Ukrainian civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko to, respectively, 20 and 10 years imprisonment on trumped-up charges of terrorism. Amnesty International and other human rights groups immediately responded with protests, while Amnesty’s press secretary in Ukraine compared the trial to Stalinist show trials.

How to Destroy a City in Five Minutes

You don’t need a weapon of mass destruction to ruin a city.

Well, maybe sometimes you do. You’re not getting rid of New York City without one. But some of the world’s cities are so vulnerable, so precariously perched above an abyss, that a single bloodthirsty nutjob with a rifle can bring it to its knees in a matter of minutes.

Look at Tunisia’s resort city of Sousse on the Mediterranean. Two months ago, an ISIS-inspired nutcase named Seifeddine Rezgui strolled up the beach with a Kalashnikov in his hand and murdered 38 people, most of them tourists from Britain.

The police shot him, of course. There was never going to be any other ending than that one. And before the police arrived, local Tunisians formed a protective human shield around Rezgui’s would-be foreign victims. “Kill us! Kill us, not these people!” shouted Mohamed Amine. According to survivor John Yeoman, hotel staff members charged the gunman and said, “We won’t let you through. You’ll have to go through us.”

Tunisia’s hospitality and customer service are deservedly legendary, but that was truly above and beyond. It’s how Tunisia rolls, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. Tourists are not going back.

A few still wander around here and there, but the locals are calling them ghosts. Who else lives in a ghost town but ghosts?

Hotels are laying off workers. Shops are empty and many will have to be closed. The city is reeling with feelings of guilt and anxiety. Guilt because one of their own murdered guests, the gravest possible offense against the ancient Arab code of hospitality, and anxiety because—what now? How will the city survive? How will all the laid-off workers earn a living with their industry on its back? Sousse without tourists is like Hollywood without movies and Detroit without automobile manufacturing.

Even Tunisia’s agriculture economy is crashing. Prices are down by 35 percent because the resorts don’t need to feed tourists anymore.

Rezgui’s ghoulish attack was spectacularly successful, wasn’t it? A single act of violence and—boom. Just like that, it’s all over.

Tunisians can still hang out in Sousse when they have some leisure time, but why should foreigners go there on holiday when they can go to Morocco instead? And if a couple of freakjobs shoot a bunch of tourists in Morocco, that country, too, could go into a tailspin. Why go there for a Mediterranean holiday when you could go to Spain, Malta, Corsica, or Croatia? Europeans who want to go farther afield can fly down to Key West, the Azores, or Bermuda. 

When it’s stable, Tunisia is a wonderful place for Westerners. The southern half of the country is quintessentially North African while the coast is startlingly European. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say the coast is Mediterranean. With a few exceptions (Gaza, Libya, and to a lesser extent Egypt), the European and Africans sides of the Mediterranean are two halves of a coherent whole. 

Only when you move inland and away from the sea do the unique characteristics of each nation-state fully assert themselves. Coastal Morocco is a lot like Spain, partly because southern Spain is a lot like Morocco. Beirut is an Arabic-speaking version of Tel Aviv. Istanbul is a Greek city inhabited by Turks while Athens is an Ottoman city where Greeks dwell. Coastal Tunisia feels like an Arabic-speaking province of France without the clash between natives and immigrants.

A French person who holidays in Sousse will feel as eerily at home as a Californian in Cabo San Lucas.

There’s a lot to love about Sousse. It’s an Arab city to emulate. If only Egyptians and Saudis and Iraqis could see this place, I thought to myself when I first got there, they’d see what’s possible in their own countries.

And that’s precisely why the likes of ISIS want to destroy it. ISIS isn’t gunning for Mecca. It is not targeting the Taliban-ruled parts of Afghanistan. It wants to swallow as much as it can, of course, but it can’t tolerate anything in the Muslim world that reminds people like me of a decadent infidel nation like France.

*

Thousands of Tunisians have run off to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Tunisians are, in fact, overrepresented in ISIS’s ranks.

Don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not because ISIS is popular in Tunisia. It’s not because Tunisians are more Islamist than people everywhere else. The democratically-elected government is composed of a staunchly secular coalition that spans the political spectrum from the socialist left to the moderate right.

Tunisia is the one Arab Spring success story. There is no chance it will voluntarily transform itself into anything resembling a Taliban state. The only Arab country less likely to rally around the ISIS flag is Lebanon, and that’s because a third of Lebanon’s people are Christians.

So if you live in Tunisia and yearn for that sort of thing, you have to go somewhere else.

Most of Tunisia’s ISIS members come from the same town anyway, a nasty place called Kasserine that I vowed to never visit again even before it became the ISIS factory that it is now.

Some countries suffer from brain drain. Their best and brightest emigrate to gentler and more prosperous lands when they can flourish. Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt—these places are all suffering from spectacular levels of brain drain.

Tunisia, meanwhile, is experiencing psychopath drain.

But some of its home-grown psychopaths are sticking around, and it’s extraordinary what just a handful can do. If they blew up their home town of Kasserine, hardly anybody would notice or care, but massacring people in Sousse is like massacring people in Miami. Americans by and large aren’t familiar with Sousse because it’s far away on a strange continent, but it’s a short hop for Europeans and Arabs and is as well-known on that side of the Atlantic as Cancun is on this side.

I’ve visited Sousse three times, first with my wife, then with my friend and occasional traveling companion Sean LaFreniere, and again with my colleague Armin Rosen.

A few years ago, in the early days of Tunisia’s democracy, Sean and I had dinner at an old French restaurant near the beach. The place was packed, the food outstanding, the bill tiny. I looked around the restaurant and saw bottles of red wine atop almost every table. None of the women were covered. The mood was care-free and light, airy and full of laugher. We could have been in France, but I heard no language in that restaurant but Arabic.

You can find restaurants like that one in Jordan, but they’re almost all attached to hotels and nearly all the patrons are foreign. In Sousse, though, Sean and I were perhaps the only foreigners, not because tourists were afraid to visit back then but because we were there in the winter, during the off season.

I’ve been almost everywhere in that country more than once. It felt solid. Kick the walls if you want. They won’t buckle. It will not come apart like Syria, Iraq or Libya. It was obvious from the very beginning that, post-Arab Spring, Tunisia would not explode in civil war like Syria, rupture into fragments like Libya, or devolve into another police state like Egypt. It sure as hell wouldn’t go the way of Afghanistan. That was clear.

“If the Islamists want to Talibanize this place,” I said to Sean as he sipped from his glass of Johnny Walker at that delightful restaurant in Sousse, “they’ll have to kill half the population in order to do it.”

He froze after I said that. I didn’t ask what he was thinking at that moment, and I doubt he’d remember if I asked him—this was years ago—but he clearly felt a chill. I felt a chill, too. And I remember what I thought when I felt it: The bastards will probably try.

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