In 2014, a new state was formed in the heart of the Middle East. It had a capital, a government, an army and almost 12 million subjects — a larger population than Jordan or Israel. It also had a commitment to butchery, savagery and fanatical violence that quickly earned it the enmity of the entire civilized world.
That universal enmity made it hard to imagine how this state of many names — the Islamic State, ISIS, Daesh — could long survive. At the time I offered a speculative analogy to the Bolsheviks in Russia, another ruthless bunch of revolutionary terrorists who faced general opprobrium and foreign interventions, but survived to govern Russia for several generations.
But in the event the more plausible scenario unfolded. By refusing even a sheen of moderation, by shocking the conscience of the world while seeking direct confrontation with Western power, the Islamic State enjoyed a temporary recruitment boom followed by a crushing extirpation. Even a weakened American empire in a more multipolar world was able to draw a circle around its barbarism and drive it back into statelessness by force of arms.
That antecedent hangs over the current crisis in Israel and Palestine. The atrocities perpetrated by Hamas against innocent Israelis, the snuff films, mutilations and delight in simple cruelty, inspired immediate analogies to the Islamic State’s depredations. They also raised a question about Hamas’s strategy. Was this, as some averred, a desperate but calculated leap to barbarism, undertaken on the theory that only true grisliness would yield the kind of Israeli reaction required to scuttle peacemaking between Israel and its Arab neighbors?
Or alternately, was it proof that Hamas had no normal strategic plan at all? Maybe in matching the Islamic State’s cruelties it also matched that regime’s self-destructive folly. Maybe, as The Atlantic’s Yair Rosenberg wrote, the massacres were “rooted not in strategy, but in sadism.”
I do not think we have to fully choose between these alternatives. Radical movements are often multivalent, with ideologically motivated sadists and strategically minded gamblers converging on the same plan despite somewhat different self-understandings.
But there is another way of thinking about extreme violence as a strategy, one with wider implications than just its potential effects on Israeli policy and Saudi-Israeli rapprochement.
Yes, a movement deliberately going to extremes risks the Islamic State scenario, where you isolate yourself so completely that you end up first morally delegitimized and then cornered and destroyed. Clearly that’s the risk Hamas is running now. It didn’t just hold power in Gaza, it enjoyed a certain kind of legitimacy, a degree of favor with parts of the Western left and the Arab world that the Islamic State never enjoyed or ever sought. And in embracing barbaric violence it showed itself willing to light that legitimacy on fire.
But suppose that you light the match, you cross the line, you leave the civilized world behind, and a lot of your allies just … stay with you? Suppose you turn southern Israel into an abattoir and you don’t end up like the Islamic State thereafter? Suppose that, instead, most of your sympathizers just go to their usual corners, some making excuses and downplaying the violence, others committing fully to the glory of your cause?
Well, then, as Damir Marusic writes in a troubling essay this week, you have achieved a “revolutionary legitimacy” that you didn’t have before. You have embraced a radical immoralism and forced your supporters to rewrite their own morality, to excuse or embrace or (as often happens) to first excuse and then embrace. This process, Marusic notes, effectively “asphyxiates any political program that is less extreme than the revolutionary agenda.” And it closes off exits for your allies in the future: Having followed you this far into darkness, each further step becomes more natural, each step backward more difficult to take.
Has Hamas achieved this generally? No: Within much of the Western political establishment they have clearly lost what modest legitimacy they previously enjoyed, horrifying European leaders as well as the more pro-Israel American center-left, and leaving themselves geopolitically exposed as Israel moves to dismantle them.
But not as exposed as the Islamic State, not even close. Hamas and its terrorists have held or expanded their popular support across the Muslim world, they have brought powerful figures like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan rushing to their defense, they have turned out protesters and inspired a surge of antisemitism in Western cities, and they have retained various forms of sympathy within the activist-academic complex.
All this has to count as a provisional victory. Perhaps a win that will be swallowed up by Hamas’s military and political destruction, perhaps a coup not worth the cost.
But you can see, for now, the shape of a dark strategic triumph that only extreme violence could obtain.
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