Ptomaine Word Salad

"It'd be a permanent downward economic spiral — like Gaza, basically," Kirk Sowell, a risk analyst and Iraq expert, says. An ISIS mini-state is just not sustainable. (Zack Beauchamp/Vox)

One would expect, then, to die when Daa’ish, (a.k.a. Daesh, ISIS, ISIL, and IS, at the very least) secretly invades the United States across the Mexican border in order to pose as migrant workers and infect our lettuce with ebola.

Oh, right. Reality. Er … ah … sorry.

So, you might have heard some murmuring of late about those bad guys from Iraq and Syria getting caught while crossing the border. It’s … something of a campfire election-season scary story.

Dylan Matthews and Dara Lind call horsepucky for Vox:

One might think that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is primarily of concern for people in and around Iraq and Syria, but some politicians beg to differ. Over the past couple months, a number of House members (and a Senator and governor here or there) have made increasingly specific statements about the perceived danger of ISIS members coming to the US, particularly by way of the Mexican border.

On one end of the spectrum, there are vague hypotheticals like the ones Texas governor and likely 2016 GOP contender Rick Perry has been posing. While noting he had “no clear evidence” this was happening, he expressed an “obvious, great concern that — because of the condition of the border from the standpoint of it not being secure and us not knowing who is penetrating across — that individuals from ISIS or other terrorist states could be.” Or fellow 2016 possibility Sen. Mario Rubio (R-FL), who when asked by Fox News’ Sean Hannity if ISIS could cross the border, answered, “Sure, potentially.”

Statements like these are basically un-factcheckable, since it’s obviously conceptually possible that people with terrorist affiliations could, at some point, sneak across the border. Some tweets from people claiming to be affiliated with ISIS have threatened attacks within the US, but there’s no indication that the group’s actual leadership is at all interested in that. Perry and Rubio’s statements aren’t outright wrong so much as they give excessive credence to a possibility for which there’s little real evidence.

But others have made statements that are more falsifiable. For those cases, we reached out to the relevant Congressional offices in search of supporting evidence. In most cases, we came up short.

Don’t let that idea of “most cases” scare you. The short answer is no, Daa’ish is not invading the United States, nor crossing the border and getting arrested in twos and fours. Yet within any myth is a grain of truth.

In this case, as Matthews and Lind explain:

Ask Duncan Hunter to toss your salad.Kasper also commented to Buzzfeed’s Jim Dalrymple, saying the comments referred to three groups of ISIS fighters: four who were caught on September 10, four who were caught on or around October 7, and two who were caught sometime between those dates. Kasper sourced the October 7 captures to the right-wing advocacy/watchdog group Judicial Watch, and the September 10 captures to Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT). But Chaffetz stated the four Islamists he claims were caught that day were members of groups other than ISIS, which was confirmed by Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, who said they were members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The US classifies the PKK as a terrorist group but it is quite active in the fight against ISIS.

The analytical wisecrack, which in this case is symptomatic insofar as nearly any analysis is going to sound bad for these fearmongering politicians, comes from the ever-reliable wisecracking stores of Steve Benen:

But (a) these guys didn’t have ties to terrorism; (b) the Kurdish Workers’ Party is actually a fierce enemy of ISIS. I don’t mean to sound picky, but when Duncan Hunter says 10 members of ISIS terrorists entered the country, and he points to four guys who aren’t terrorists and hate ISIS, the argument seems to fall apart.

The better bloggers can establish strong narratives derived from available facts, which is why Benen is often so useful. After all, we promised you ebola, didn’t we? And Benen’s analysis also points to … Martha Raddatz for ABC News:

RADDATZ: … No one seems to have any evidence to back up Hunter’s claims. Is he just seizing on people’s fears? They are pretty high this morning.

MATTHEW DOWD, ABC NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, yeah, they’re very high this morning. And I — I don’t want to conflate the two things with Ebola and this, but many times fear doesn’t have to be real to be powerful. And in the context of it, we don’t often have to have facts to back up our fears. We respond to our fears.

I think everybody has the right to say what they want to say, but they have the responsibility to say what may be they believe to be factually correct. The congressman says he believes it to be factually correct. But at a time like this with terrorism and, as you say, with the Ebola thing, we should counsel our fears and look for the fact sets.

It is a great formulation, eh? “I don’t want to … but …”? The better—proper—formulation is either a wisecrack or a threat. That is, I don’t want to say Matthew Dowd, the Republican strategist who worked for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaignα, is stupid, but he’s at least a coil short of a light bulb. Or, perhaps, I don’t want to spank you, Matthew, but if you keep flailing around like that you’re gonna break something, and then I’ll have to put you over my knee!

The ham-handed political version is to say you don’t want to do something and then do it anyway. You know, like, I don’t want a political scandal, but I’m going to send some stranger a picture of my package in my sexy boxer-briefs. Or, I don’t want to conflate the two things, but I’m going to conflate the two things.

In truth, though, Dowd’s analysis wasn’t that bad: “we should counsel our fears and look for the fact sets”.

(Must the facts really come in “sets”? Is there any such thing as an independent fact in the world, or must all facts be bound into sets? To the one, what does that even mean? To the other, we can guess well enough.)

Still, though, Daa’ish is coming. Across the Mexican border. And they’re going to give you ebola. The Republicans say so.

VoxThen again, as Matthews and Lind report, it’s not just Republicans. Then again, at least Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY1) stayed within the realm of general plausibility:

The lone Democrat getting in on the game, Bishop claimed during a speech that 100 Americans have left to join ISIS, and 40 of them have since returned to the US, and are currently under FBI monitoring.

Still, though, we would need to see the data. As of press time, the Vox team had not heard back from the congressman’s office.

Yet for all this unbelievable excrement, would you believe there’s even more?

And after you finish reading through the Matthews/Lind analysis, you might notice those weird little “cards”. It’s a Vox thing, but they actually do better than most supplemental gadgets; there’s actual reporting in some of them, instead of nifty stats and quick quote bites. Number Nine in this fact set (ha!) debunks a myth from somewhere about Daa’ish somehow being invincible:

In June, when ISIS was sweeping Iraq, there were panicked predictions that Baghdad was about to fall to ISIS’s advance. It didn’t. ISIS didn’t even try to take the city, likely because it knew it couldn’t dislodge the huge concentrations of Iraqi troops there — or hold a majority-Shia city that would never accept it.

Iraqi demographics place a natural limit on ISIS’s advance. Even high-end estimates of ISIS’s strength — 50,000 troops — make it much smaller than the Iraqi army or Kurdish peshmerga. It’d be impossible for ISIS to take and hold majority Shia areas, where they’d be totally unable to build popular support. The Islamic State’s borders in Iraq are limited to northern and western, Arab-majority, Sunni-majority Iraq.

That’s a damning problem for ISIS. All of the major oil wells, which provide 95 percent of Iraq’s GDP, are in southern Iraq or Kurdish-held territory in the northeast. ISIS can’t advance on the Shia south, and a joint US-Kurdish campaign is reversing its gains in Kurdistan. ISIS has huge financial reserves for a militant group — maybe up to $1 billion dollars. But that’s a relatively small amount for a government, and any attempt to actually govern northwestern Iraq in the long run would lead to economic disaster.

“It’d be a permanent downward economic spiral — like Gaza, basically,” Kirk Sowell, a risk analyst and Iraq expert, says. An ISIS mini-state is just not sustainable.

I don’t want to say … er … right. Look, the reality is that Daa’ish continues its atrocious fight, and as far as anyone can tell, it’s all for naught.

Still, though, don’t trust your salad. Well, you know. Unless Rep. Hunter tosses it first.


α It should be noted, in fairness, that he also worked for Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, both Democrats. At least since 1999, though, Dowd has worked as a Republican.

Beauchamp, Zack. “The 9 biggest myths about ISIS”. Vox. 1 October 2014.

Matthews, Dylan and Dara Lind. “4 Congressmen say ISIS is on America’s border. We asked them for proof.”. Vox. 10 October 2014.

Benen, Steve. “The ‘ISIS crossing the border’ claims look a little worse”. msnbc. 13 October 2014.

ABC News. “‘This Week’ Transcript: General Martin Dempsey”. 12 October 2014.

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