There’s a line in Michael Holtz’s cover story on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this week that jumped off the page at me. “One of the distinguishing characteristics of Kim’s regime,” he writes, “has been its ability to exploit ... unpredictability for its own benefit.”
The argument, essentially, is this: I get my power by making you afraid. In this case, the fear is the threat of nuclear war. The power is the right to misrule a country without concern for the general welfare of nations or its own citizens.
On one hand, this equation does not inspire the greatest hope. North Korea’s ability to inflict suffering appears catastrophic. But viewed from Mr. Kim’s own perspective, this threat is a somewhat empty one. The Kim regime has amply shown that its only concerns are appallingly selfish. Maintaining the Kim line appears to be Plan A through Z. By that reckoning, all the devastation Kim could cause would be essentially pointless because it would inevitably bring about the one thing the Kims don’t want: their own downfall.
The international community is wise to remain vigilant. Power can corrupt in many ways, and one obvious way is the corruption of good judgment. Logic is not a sure enough defense against moral bankruptcy.
But the knowledge of Kim’s ultimate impotence is an important armament of a different sort. It helps weaponize how we think about evil worldwide. What is the mode of power of the Islamic State (ISIS), after all? Doesn’t the group “exploit unpredictability for its own benefit”? Isn’t that the very definition of terrorism? The fear is of the unpredictability of violence. The power is a sort of mental imperialism. ISIS will fail as a physical caliphate; the few places it conquered while the world’s attentions were elsewhere are steadily being liberated. Yet its random attacks from London to Barcelona, Spain, aim to extend fear of it globally.
Viewed from ISIS’s perspective, the attacks are a sign of its impotence. As its grand plans collapse, it has had to settle for trying to turn everyday objects like autos into implements of fear. Again, that should in no way suggest complacency in meeting the threat. But the acknowledgment of ISIS’s inherent weakness does begin to disarm ISIS of its most powerful weapon.
We can even look to Charlottesville, Va., and see the same things at work. White nationalists there did not come with guns blazing, but they did come with guns and torches and toxic anger. Their power is in the fear of what might come – their unpredictability. But there is no victory for white nationalism in the United States. The US has much work ahead to reach racial equality, but still, the arrow is pointing forward. What white supremacists can do is shock us into reflecting their hatred back at them. What we can and must do is deny them that power.