ISIS vs. the enduring power of martyrdom

Even in the case of the execution of Saddam Hussein, a man almost universally despised, the fact that his executioners jeered at him in his final moments elicited compassion. ISIS has tried to use the modern appetite for visual images to spread their propaganda, but they will learn, as others have, that this will not further their cause. It is for this reason that the U.S. and Jordanian governments are right not to have released pictures of the bodies of Osama bin Laden and the recently executed jihadists, respectively.

But ISIS may be learning. On Friday, the group announced that the last American hostage they were holding, a 26-year-old female aid worker from Arizona, had been killed in a Jordanian air strike. Her death has not been confirmed. It’s possible she was killed as they claim, but it’s also possible that she had been executed earlier. ISIS’s claim that she was killed in a Jordanian “revenge” air strike for al Kasasbeh’s death could be a ploy to win back some sympathy in the wake of the pilot’s murder.

Barbarism horrifies. But making martyrs of one’s opponents never wins the battle for hearts and minds. It only intensifies opposition, polarizes the undecided, and provokes righteous and justified anger. The North African Church father Tertullian proclaimed that “the blood of the martyrs is seed” for the Church. His prediction turned out to be correct. Martyrdom breeds not fear and obedience, but more martyrs. The only contest that ISIS have a chance of winning is the race to be the most ignominious regime in history.