Islamic terrorists don't understand that America is much harder to humiliate
Ever since the beheading of James Foley a welter of confused commentary has rushed out speculating as to why ISIS is "provoking" America.
The terminology being used is revealing. The writers are making the assumption that ISIS would want to avoid a conflict with America. This is the same bad assumption that has led to the various claims that Islamic terrorism is blowback or a response to American actions.
The fact of the matter is that ISIS sees itself as being at war with the Dar al Harb, the non-Muslim parts of the world, literally the realm of the sword, on behalf of its Dar al Islam.
It doesn't see itself as provoking a new conflict. The conflict already exists and has always existed throughout time from the founding of Islam.
For example, the Hamas charter begins by quoting the Muslim Brotherhood's Hassan al-Banna, "Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors." This is a doctrine of perpetual conflict. America and Israel are standing in for the Crusaders, the Meccans and countless other Islamic foes. Any non-Muslim state is assumed to be in a state of war with Islam.
ISIS isn't being very discreet at all. It not only launched a confrontation with Iran, but is threatening its former allies in Qatar and Turkey.
This seems insane by the standards of the West. But then so does Putin casually talking about using nuclear weapons. Our response to such behavior mainly reminds us that we've forgotten the mindset of real wars. We also don't understand the mindset of the Middle East.
ISIS is using the same tactics with America as it did with the Iraqi Army. Beheadings and humiliations of captured prisoners. It is showing its members and its supporters that it is stronger than America.
This is what terrorists do.
ISIS hasn't won battles against enemies that stood and fought. It broke the morale of its opponents by humiliating them. This is a powerful thing in the Middle East's honor/shame cultures where fighting forces have poor professionalism and draw their morale from a false sense of confidence. You've seen all those videos of Jihadists running out of cover or accidentally blowing themselves up.
This is the attitude that keeps the enemy going. They don't really follow orders. They don't really learn how to do things. What unites them is a sense of inevitability. Puncture that by humiliating them and they collapse. Their macho shows are all hat and no cattle. There's nothing underneath the bravado except cowardice and cruelty.
Islamic terrorists don't understand that America is much harder to humiliate and that American soldiers won't run away or collapse the way that their conventional enemies will because they're part of a professional army.
Muslim countries equally did not understand that Israel won't be broken in the same way. They still don't understand it. That's why Hamas does what it does.
Westerners can be grieved and angered. When they see terrorist atrocities, they don't feel shame, they feel rage. In an honor-shame culture, rage only counts if you can do something. If you can't, then you are shamed.
The Western attitude however transmutes rage into the dehumanization of the enemy. Through rage, Westerners adopt the same attitude that Muslim armies already have. This is what makes violent war possible.
This is what just happened to Hamas in Gaza.
Muslim armies apriori dehumanize their opponents. Modern Westerners don't. The more ISIS or Hamas act like violent savages, the more they wake the "sleeping giant".
This is an attitude that Muslims don't understand. Just as the Japanese didn't understand it, though Admiral Yamamoto who had spent some time in the United States did.
ISIS thinks that if it humiliates America enough, it will force it into a shame spiral that will break its morale. This isn't impossible, but it's generally an American sense of failure that does this, e.g. Vietnam, and even so the national sense of honor is extremely resilient.
Vietnam is now seen quite differently. Iraq will also be seen quite differently twenty years from now.
And, more importantly, ISIS is rallying supporters by showing that it is humiliating America. It understands rightly that recruitment is its only reliable path to survival.
That is how Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda took off. If America doesn't utterly smash the Jihad, it will crawl away and rebuild and recruit again. Win or lose, if the core of the movement survives, it will rise again.
ISIS is fully prepared to accept defeat in Iraq and Syria all over again, because if views such defeats as part of its path to eventual victory. It thinks less cautiously and strategically than the Western influenced Muslim Brotherhood. It believes that only through waging immediate and total war will it wake up Muslims and rally them to its banner.
It's not willing to play the Muslim Brotherhood's long game. Its long game is the short game.
It wants to kill Americans now. It wants to kill everyone now. It wants to terrorize as many people as possible to establish its primacy and its inevitability.