If ISIS is the Joker, are we the boats?

Politicians are becoming reluctant to welcome Syrian refugees after the tragic attack in Paris last weekend.

Remember the boat scene in The Dark Knight? The Joker strands two boats on a river, gives them the ability to blow each other up, and states that if neither boat has destroyed the other by midnight, he’ll destroy them both.


I’m pretty sure ISIS is doing some version of this right now, and we’re falling for it.

ISIS Is The Joker

“Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Alfred the butler says this about the Joker, because it seems his only motive is to dehumanize people through systematic terror.

The Joker is:

  • Unpredictable
  • Deadly
  • Dedicated to terror

ISIS is:

  • Unpredictable
  • Deadly
  • Dedicated to terror
  • Wants power

You could argue that ISIS’ lust for power makes its motives slightly more complex than the Joker’s–but not by much.

The big item these two forces hold in common is a low view of their fellow man. The Joker believes people will turn on each other easily given a little manipulation. ISIS, meanwhile, has stated something very similar.

The Pieces Are Set

Thousands of Syrian refugees have fled to Western countries to escape civil war, and ISIS itself. This refugee crisis tests the resources of those countries scrambling to help them. Their numbers are unmanageable, it’s expensive, everyone is nervous about maintaining control of the process. Into this precarious situation, ISIS injects a terrible tragedy–the attack on Paris.

Instability  +  Nerves  +  Sudden Threat  =  ?

It catches everyone off guard and bruises our sense of safety. Everything feels more threatening now. The natural human reaction is to take preventative measures so this won’t happen again.

Instability  +  Nerves  +  Sudden Threat  =  Fearful Reaction (ISIS Hopes)

The next thing you know, politicians are saying that thousands of traumatized, fleeing people cannot be helped because of the risk of a few insurgents getting in under the radar.

Fear, Not Death, As A Threat

The Joker based his boat experiment on the belief that people would rather commit inhumane acts than feel fear. He didn’t threaten them with immediate, gun-to-the-head execution. In fact, he didn’t even prove whether he could blow up the boats from afar. What he threatened them with was the Chinese water torture of fearful thinking.

Will he really blow us up at midnight?

How close is midnight?

What if he changes his mind and blows us up at 11:45?

If we just blow up the other boat, this could all be over.

What if they blow us up first?

Quick, what time is it now??

He counted on those questions becoming so uncomfortable that people would turn their backs on each other rather than suffer down those last 20 minutes.


When the boats fail to detonate each other, the Joker doesn’t whip out a magic Wiley Coyote dynamite lever and blow them to smithereens. Their own terror was the threat. Their own survival instinct was the only thing putting anyone in real danger.

But in the moment, the danger felt very, very real to the people in those boats.

Are We In ISIS’ Boat?

We know for sure that ISIS thinks the Muslim and non-Muslim populations of the West can be pitted against each other through terror strikes.

The Islamic State explained after the January attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine that such attacks “compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone themselves. . . . Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize . . . or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens.” The group calculates that a small number of attackers can profoundly shift the way that European society views its 44 million Muslim members and, as a result, the way European Muslims view themselves. Through this provocation, it seeks to set conditions for an apocalyptic war with the West.

With this in mind, is it possible that ISIS hopes this latest attack will make us unwilling to help the Syrian refugees, and in turn make the Syrian refugees resentful of us? Does ISIS want to use this situation to fuel anger at the West and make new converts to their extremism?

Like the Joker with his boats, ISIS wants to turn two previously amicable camps–Western countries and Syrian refugees–against each other through fear.

Dehumanization: ISIS’ Most Powerful Goal

“What were you trying to prove?” Bruce Wayne says at the end of that boat scene. “That deep down, everyone’s as ugly as you?”

I fear this may be part of ISIS’ game–forcing us to treat each other as enemies, when we have just condemned ISIS for treating the world that way. What better way to undermine someone’s moral high ground than to pull them closer to your level?

ISIS’ other and more practical goal, of course, could be to gain converts and get other countries to do the hard work of escalating hostilities.

We don’t really want either of these things to happen, do we?

Practical Application

Unfortunately, the alternative (and, I believe, the only real answer) does involve some amount of risk.

Just as the boats couldn’t know whether the Joker really could blow them up from afar, we can’t be 100% sure that all refugees we let in will be safe. We can be sure that the vast, vast majority of them will be–but yes, opening our doors in a time of upheaval could mean that someone we don’t want will slip in.

(Although, as many have pointed out, we’re plenty in danger from ISIS-radicalized Western citizens anyway).

I don’t think the politicians who hesitate to bring refugees in are mustache-twirlers trying to be cruel. On the contrary, many of them have cited the safety of their own citizens as their number one priority.

The problem is that snatching at temporary protection makes everyone less safe in the long run. There is no risk-less action anymore, and I’m sorry about that–the reality of this has me by the lapels in a way that nothing has since 9/11. But, it is what it is.

Do you really want to live in a world where terrorists know that they can manipulate us out of helping each other in times of tragedy? I don’t. Do you really want to live in a world where we’ve turned away thousands of traumatized people who are embraced by the waiting arms of radicalized killers? Nope.

I don’t want to lob personal criticism at politicians who are making these decisions, I just want them to reconsider. And I can’t know for sure that my perspective is right, because I’m not God. What I can tell you is that, as far as I’m able to see right now, allowing ourselves to fear the refugees would be helpful to the people who are terrorizing them and us. It would be opening a can of worms in ISIS’ strategy that I don’t think we want to open.

Let’s be a little bit Emily Dickinson and go above our nerves, here.

Ways To Help

  • Call your representatives–If you live in an area that is averse to resettling Syrian refugees, let your representatives know this is not the right course of action.
  • Speak up–If a friend or neighbor repeats what these politicians say, please confront them with the other side of the coin.
  • Check your heart–Fear is a natural reaction, but it should never be our compass. There’s no shame in feeling spooked. I’m spooked. But let’s not allow fear to override compassion.

Whatever you do, for God’s sake, don’t press the detonator for the other boat.  We are better than that.

One Reply to “If ISIS is the Joker, are we the boats?”

  1. Wow, Rachel! This is the best thing I’ve read in days. You nailed it from a political perspective and for bonus points, it smells a lot like Jesus to me. Great job!

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