The Islamic State (ISIS) just lost its capital at Raqqa, and with it the last of the terrorist group’s fantasies of establishing a Middle East caliphate.
In recent years, ISIS has horrified global audiences with video clips of unspeakable atrocities. What sort of human beings could behead, incinerate, drown, torture and blow up innocent civilians, mock and record such horror, and then narrate their macabre videos for a world audience?
How could such pre-modern psychopaths ever be defeated, given that in a matter of months ISIS had managed to overrun vast swaths of Iraq and Syria?
The zealotry of the Islamic State in celebrating the unthinkable added to its cult of invincibility. Young would-be jihadists from the Western world flocked to the group’s Middle East compounds, eager to engage in viciousness as if it were the latest video game.
Dejected Middle Eastern armies seemed to have no answer for the medieval violence of ISIS. Impotent Western leaders either ignored or denied the group’s homicidal appeal. Indeed, in 2014, pessimistic analysts were predicting that ISIS might soon carve out enough oil-rich parts of Iraq and Syria to spread its barbarism throughout region.
But recently, the entire Islamic State project began going up in smoke almost as abruptly as it was born. It turned out that squadrons of American bombers were not impressed by ISIS threats and bombed to smithereens its command centers and headquarters.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis relaxed the rules of U.S. engagement and made it a veritable open season on Islamic State jihadists, while American forces trained entire new cadres of anti-ISIS fighters. Specialized drones and GPS-guided Western munitions made it almost impossible for ISIS leaders to escape constant attack.
Their past horrors had earned Islamic State jihadists only ill will. Tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian victims volunteered to fight ISIS with a ferocity that they had rarely exhibited in the past.
The net result is now mass ISIS surrenders. Half-starved jihadists in rags and in tears beg their captors for forgiveness — and not to show them the same savagery that had so often had fueled ISIS slaughtering.
The fate of ISIS reminds us that throughout history those who posed as superhuman savages, without any limitations to their cruelty, were often bullies who could not stand up to the determined payback of their finally aroused and outraged victims.
After Sept. 11, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden frightened Westerners with his tough talk about the “strong horse” of radical Islam, for whose brutality and cruelty a supposedly weak and decadent West had no antidote. But after years of the U.S. and its allies whittling away al Qaeda from Afghanistan to Iraq, and bombing its ringleaders wherever they appeared, bin Laden was killed in a dingy Pakistan compound.
In the early 1940s, the most feared killers in the world were Nazi kingpin Heinrich Himmler’s SS elite. The SS claimed they were the new racial supermen, overseeing extermination camps and spearheading the German army by executing prisoners and civilians alike.
But by May 1945, with Berlin in ruins and Hitler dead, former killers were trying to hide their SS tattoos. Like Himmler himself, most SS commandos were cowardly, fearing that their victims might do to the SS what the SS had done to others.
Before and during World War II, Japanese militarists slaughtered millions of civilians in China and butchered their way through the Pacific. They boasted that they would never surrender in World War II. Yet after the Allies had rooted out fanatical forces from their strongholds in the Pacific and bombed Japan into ruins, even the most diehard fanatics meekly gave up.
Civilization in peace becomes complacent. It understandably hopes that growing terror on the horizon will burn out on its own.
During calm periods, prosperous and more liberal nations certainly do not want to send their youth across the world to fight those who claim that they would enjoy nothing more than dying while trying to kill those more successful and better off.
But the true strength in arms is usually civilizational, not tribal. A modern state that lives by the rule of law and the consent of the governed, and is energized by free markets and a free people, can be a deadly force when finally provoked into rage. The same is true of innocent victims initially overwhelmed by tribal killers like those of the SS, al Qaeda or the Islamic State.
ISIS may have been able to invent ever more macabre ways of dismembering innocent victims, but it could not make a fighter plane or win the lasting allegiance and loyalty of the majority of Iraqis and Syrians.
And so, like soulless killing machines of the past, ISIS is now finally being killed off.
• Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.