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ISIS, You Ain’t No Existential Threat, Bruv

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.

And, though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

Over time, words lose their original meaning. Often, exaggeration is to blame. The most obvious (and cliched) example is “literally” which literally no longer means literally. This “misuse” isn’t new or even that wrong from a literary perspective. (James Joyce, Mark Twain and Jane Austen all used it incorrectly.) You could (debatebly) throw “decimate” into this category, a word which once meant “one-tenth” now means “all”. I’m not immune either. Over the last couple months, I (Eric C) realized I use the word “infinitely” in definitively un-infinite situations. Michael C misuses “exponential growth” to refer to non-exponential growth and hates himself for it.

I fear this may happen to the word “existential”. “Existential” is supposed to refer to existence, meaning that if something is an “existential threat”, it poses a threat to your existence.

This word is literally being decimated by delusional (or fear-mongering) politicians.

I first noticed this language abuse by John McCain in 2008 during the presidential campaign, referring to terrorism generally. Of course, he’s not the only one. Long-time readers of On V may remember us writing about this before, citing major conservative thinkers scared of radical extremists. Since then, John McCain, and once-upon-a-time Republican Presidential candidate Lindsey Graham have continued the assault on language (and logic), by claiming ISIS poses an existential threat to America and the west.

Thankfully, some major conservative thinkers have debunked this abuse of language. That, alas, was but a brief blip in conservative thinking. Despite the patently inaccurate description, the entire Republican field has pushed the fact that ISIS is an existential threat:

- Ted Cruz, in an op-ed in the Washington Examiner, wants “to fight the existential threat of the Islamic State.”

- Ben Carson at the fifth debate: “But the war that we are fighting now against radical Islamist jihadists is one that we must win. Our very existence is dependent upon that.”

- Rand Paul feels ISIS poses a “global threat”. Which is somehow less accurate than “existential”.

- Or Marco Rubio at sixth debate: “There is a war against ISIS, not just against ISIS but against radical jihadists terrorists, and it is a war that they win or we win.”

- And Marco Rubio again at the seventh debate: "ISIS is the most dangerous jihadist group in the history of mankind. ISIS is now found in affiliates in over a dozen countries. ISIS is a group that burns people alive in cages; that sells off little girls as brides...They want to trigger an apocalyptic Armageddon showdown."

From the start, Michael C and I have followed a guideline for choosing what to write about on our blog: have a good take. A good take means saying something true, but, more importantly, something novel, unique or original. You might stand out if you argue the moon is a hologram (like this guy, somehow) but the claim is so patently false as to be uninteresting. Next though, a good take needs to be original, lest we become just another blog in the “internet echo chamber”.

There’s a caveat, though. If an idea is true, but the general public doesn’t believe it, well, we need to write about it. Even if others are saying it too. This applies to ISIS.

America has fighter planes, tanks, battleships, landing craft, nuclear weapons; ISIS has some trucks and a handful of missiles. America’s military has a budget of over half a trillion dollars annually; ISIS claims they have two billion dollars. America’s military has over 1.3 million people; ISIS has soldiers in the low thousands. We have rich allies with well-funded militaries; ISIS has, somehow, managed to also piss off Russia, the Kurds, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

So obviously ISIS doesn’t represent an “existential threat” to America. Or a global threat. Or really the world more generally.

As we said earlier, others have made this point. But it still needs saying. Many people rationally understand this; millions of potential voters don’t. Obviously, it is galvanizing Republicans, both their candidates and their admirers. But worse, some Democrats have basically conceded this issue. As we wrote about before, during Obama’s final State of the Union, when Obama said that ISIS didn’t pose an existential threat, some Democrats didn’t clap at this line. Hell, watching the New Hampshire returns last week, I saw on MSNBC’s scroll that 9% of Democrats in New Hampshire ranked ISIS as their most concerning issue.

ISIS may some day launch terrorist attacks against America. (Even then, statistically, the threat they pose to Americans is tiny. Less than bee stings and bathtubs. Or fireworks.) But the chances ISIS will threaten America’s sovereignty or borders is literally infinitely small. Both politicians and the media need to make this clear.