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Chris Honoré: 'Like a ghastly rapid river, through the pale door, a hideous throng rush out ...'

ISIL/ISIS, a cohort of zealots, a caliphate — to borrow their word — of men who have banded together in northern Iraq and Syria beneath a black banner with white letters (the Shahada) that implicitly promises violent jihad against the West and against the corruption of modernity.

They exist outside the tenets of civilized society. With cameras rolling, they have beheaded journalists and aid workers; burned alive a caged Jordanian pilot, his clothes saturated with gasoline; walked Egyptian Coptic Christians along a remote shoreline, each accompanied by a man carrying a large knife, and then beheaded them.

Northern Syria has been emptied of Assyrian Christians, men killed, women taken hostage, many raped, others forced into slavery. In Mosul, Iraq, they have destroyed priceless artifacts.

It’s as if barbarians from the Dark Ages have suddenly been unleashed, wreaking havoc in every village and city they occupy. Stark images reach us of men clustered in the back of pickups, their Kalashnikovs raised in defiance, peering out through narrow slits in black cloth masks, their humanity long ago abandoned.

This corrosive cohort brings to mind the words of Edgar Allen Poe: “While, like a ghastly rapid river, through the pale door, a hideous throng rush out forever and laugh — but smile no more.”

And lest we think they are religious purists, we soon understand that they are poseurs who hide behind Islam and their flimsy rationale referred to as jihad. In truth, they are plunderers who seek land and money and power and have long ago dropped any pretense of following the teachings of Muhammad or the scriptures of the Quran. They are not holy warriors (or Islamic extremists, using the parlance of the West). They are thugs.

But here is the question raised: Given all of the above, shown graphically and repeatedly on the Internet, how is it possible that young people from across Europe, from America and parts of the Middle East are gravitating toward ISIS/ISIL in such significant numbers? Look closely at the security camera image of three teenage girls from England as they walked through a Turkish airport preparing to get on a bus bound for the Turkey-Syria border where they will join ISIS, hoping to serve in whatever capacity asked. It is chilling to imagine what that capacity will be.

How is it possible that young people (of whatever age) would watch online the brutality of these men and yearn to join them as they kill and maim and wreak havoc? What emptiness must a young person feel, what absence of purpose and identity exist within that allows them to embrace such evil? The young are vulnerable, granted. But this? Reports have come back describing small towns replete with severed heads on spikes, lining the streets and byways.

Why would the seductive voices of those who recruit for ISIS resonate with those three girls, for example, causing them to leave their families, homes and countries and gravitate to the darkest side of the moon and become handmaidens to remorseless mayhem? Is it simply misguided idealism, a yearning for meaning, their naïve and immature emotions saturated with fraudulent propaganda and a promise of … what? Do young people raised in the West (be it Europe or America) or in the Middle East, believe that waging jihad is the equivalent of an exhilarating video game? Or a movie peopled by heroic comic book characters, costumed in black, pure of intention and noble in spirit, a band of brothers who will embrace them and then convince them that they are now part of a transcendent cause?

But regardless of the reasons or the emotions, however ingenuous or shallow, the outcome for these young people is often deadly. For many this choice will not end well.

Of course, zealotry, in all its permutations, will ever be with us. It has threaded its way through our history for millennia and always found those eager to take up sword and banner and gun in the name of a cause that even they may find hard to explain. And still they rush through that pale door to laugh but smile no more.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.