BROOKE: From WNYC in in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I’m Brooke Gladstone. On Thursday, amid the drumbeat in Washington for aggressive military action in Syria to fight the group calling itself “Islamic State,” came a video message from the extremist group itself, delivered through one of its captives.
Clip: After 2 disastrous and hugely unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, why is it that our governments appear so keen to get involved in yet another unwinnable conflict?
BROOKE: The video, released online, is titled "Lend Me Your Ears," and the speaker is John Cantlie, a British journalist kidnapped by ISIS militants in Syria in November 2012. Cantlie is sitting behind a desk and wearing an orange jumpsuit. He speaks directly to the camera, and appears to be reading from a script.
Clip: Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking he's only doing this because he's a prisoner. He's got a gun at his head, and he's being forced to do this. Right? Well it's true, I am a prisoner. That I cannot deny. But seeing as I have been abandoned by my government and my fate now lies in the hands of the Islamic state, I have nothing to lose.
BROOKE: Cantlie goes on to describe how, in a forthcoming series of lectures, he'll deliver what he calls verifiable facts about the Islamic State.
I'm going to show you the truth behind the systems and motivation of the Islamic State, and how the western media, the very organizations I used to work for, can twist and manipulate that truth for the public back home. There are two sides to every story. Think you're getting the whole picture?
BROOKE: This video surfaced just a day after the House voted overwhelmingly to authorize the training and arming of Syrian rebels to confront ISIS. Though Cantlie presents no threats in the video, his penetrating tone, and the promise of more to come may further unsettle a public already fearful about the group’s reach.
BROOKE: 90 percent of Americans say that ISIS, or ISIL or Islamic State poses a threat to the US according to a recent CNN poll. Hey Mark, let that be the first question:
MARK LYNCH: Ok.
BROOKE: Marc lynch is director of the Institute for Middle East studies at George Washington University. So Mark, what should we be calling this entity?
LYNCH: I think you should be calling it ISIS because I think that that better captures what the group understands about itself. The administration has chosen to use the phrase ISIL - the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Which I think they see as a way of translating " Sham" which is what the 'S' stands for in ISIS. That doesn't resonate with how anybody in the region understands it or how the group understands itself. I actually think that the terminology is very problematic because ultimately there is a battle to define what this group is. And that's a big part of the politics of trying to confront it.
BROOKE: So that's one piece of the framing. Some more polls suggest that nearly half the country believe we're less safe now than we were before 9/11. That's according to NBC's poll. A Washington Post poll finds that 71 percent of Americans support air strikes against that group. And Obama's military campaign against it has drawn bipartisan support according to the Pew Research Center. Majorities of both Democrats and Republicans approve of it. These are incredibly dramatic numbers given that three months ago Americans had barely heard of ISIS. So, Mark, what explains this widely held sentiment that ISIS is a real and present threat that has to be addressed with military action?
LYNCH: So if you look at where ISIS came from, it comes out of the civil war in Syria. Last fall when the President was talking about bombing Syria. The outpouring of public opposition was extraordinary. The polls that showed that 70 to 80 percent were against it but also people calling their congressman. Letters to their congressman. So now here we are we've got 70 to 80 percent saying, 'yes we have to bomb ISIS.' I think really what happened was that there was this fundamental reframing of what was at stake. So if you're asking 'do you want to get involved in another war?,' 'Do you want to be back in the business of occupying an Arab country?' Everyone's against it. But...there's always been a very strong level of support for a counter-terrorism action. And for airstrikes against terrorist groups.
BROOKE: So you're saying that Syria as gruesome as that conflict has been, and as deadly, was never framed as a counter-terrorism issue for us.
LYNCH: Exactly. It was a 'genocide,' it was a 'humanitarian catastrophe,' it was a 'battle against an Iranian client.' But those aren't things most Americans are interested in fighting for right now. But the support for acting against terrorists groups has been consistently high.
BROOKE: Since 9/11?
LYNCH: Even before 9/11 -- the Chicago Council on Global Affairs just released their bi-annual report and they've been asking the question about air strikes on terrorist groups all the way back to 1998. Support has never dropped below 70 percent. And so what you're seeing now - it's not that people have changed their minds about Syria it's that they're fundamentally thinking about it in a different way. That, then, gets to the question of how did that happen? I think the answer is pretty obvious. It's the videos of the beheadings. That powerful image which the polls show virtually everybody in the country was aware of...
BROOKE: You're saying virtually everybody in the country...I don't think that everybody in the country could name the President of the United States.
LYNCH: Right. Which makes the findings of 94 percent awareness of this video a pretty amazing statistic. There's just no question that this was something that absolutely shocked a lot of people and it indelibly framed our understating of ISIS in a way that says 'This is a terrorist group. This is a continuation of Bin Laden, of Al-Qaeda, the battles that we were fighting in Iraq.' In other words, in that one moment that narrative about Syria flips on its ear for most Americans who are looking at this. They're still not necessarily in favor of military action in Syria against Assad. What they're in favor of is revenge. Hitting a terrorist group. Those are the parameters that have been shaped by this new media narrative.
BROOKE: Ok, but in 2002 Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was horribly and memorably beheaded in Pakistan by Al-Qaeda. That didn't elict the same reaction.
LYNCH: I think there's a big different in the ways these are perceived. When Daniel Pearl is killed or when Nicholas Berg is beheaded in Iraq, that's happening in the midst of an active war. At that point Americans were already deeply embedded within a narrative of 'the war on terror,' the war in Iraq. So I think those incidences, as horrible as they were, simply reconfirmed what we were already doing. We're fighting against these barbarians and look what those barbarians do. We have to fight even harder. Whereas the executions of Foley and Sotloff those come at a time when the general narrative is 'we're retrenching, we're withdrawing, we're resisting getting drawn into this conflict.' And then all of a sudden you see this happening again. And so, there's a big difference in impact form seeing something which confirms an ongoing story line, versus something which seems to up- end it and say, 'Well what we thought was all wrong.'
BROOKE: I'm a little perplexed why anybody would think that things have gotten all wrong when they haven't gone right for years in Iraq.
LYNCH: Well I think, in Iraq, the fact that the United States had withdrawn had largely ended that story for most Americans. Most of the media had pulled out. There were very few active journalists still working there. And so yes you would have the drip-drip of the occasion story of bad things happening in Iraq. But it changed from a story about things happening to us to things happening to them. So when see the fall of Mosul and we see the spread of the islamic state. Now he it is again: that kind of invocation of last decade's nightmares. And this extremely visible killing of American citizens all of a sudden that then brings us back into the story.
BROOKE: And I guess historically as you noted, a lot of that public engagement is prompted by this counter-terrorism argument. And yet counter-terrorism experts downplay the extent to which ISIS present a real threat in the US. The governments counterterrorism chief Matthew Olsen said that, " There's no credible information that it's planning an attack on America." And Daniel Benjamin who served as the State Department's top counterterrorism advisor during Obama's first term said that " the public discussion about the ISIS threat was a farce."
LYNCH: I think that those voices are a voice in the wind. Because what they're talking against is the unbelievable level of media attention, television coverage and sensationalism and plenty of threat mongering coming from Congress and politicians of all stripes. If you're sitting there and you're not really an expert on the subject, you're seeing the media full of all these lurid warnings of bad things that might happen, and intelligence officials say 'No. We don't have any actionable intelligence of concrete threats against the United States.' I think there's an understandable impulse to shrug that away and say, 'Well yeah, but that doesn't mean it couldn't happen.'
BROOKE: I just want to finish by asking you a question about mixed-messaging, it seems, from the Obama administration. First of all, they're very clear that this isn't a march to war. On the other hand there's a sense of confusion. A Pew poll shows that while a majority support Obama's plan, only 18 percent of people think it'll actually work. To decrease the risk of terror at home.
LYNCH: I think you're seeing real mixed messages and you're hearing different language from different officials partly because the administration hasn't quite figured out what it's going to do yet. Also, you're seeing different constituencies who are reading a lot into those statements for people who are primarily worried that we're going to get dragged into another Iraq. They're hyper senstive to any language that might suggest a slippery slope. So when general Dempsey says that we might consider boots on the ground if it's appropriate. What people who fear a new Iraq hear is, 'We're going back in.' Or if the United States says something about the Free Syrian Army needing to turn it's guns on ISIS instead of the regime people who are primarily interested in overthrowing the Syrian regime, they hear we're selling out the opposition. And I don't think the media's helping because they turn everything into a kind of partisan slugfest. And the exaggeration of the controversy of the day. I imagine that the Administration is very frustrated by this. But it's just the reality of the media environment and the political environment that we work in these days.
BROOKE: Mark, thank you very much.
LYNCH: Oh, thanks for having me back.
BROOKE: Mark Lynch is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at George Washington University.