No words can describe the revulsion to Islamist atrocities, but political leaders have to try to find some when terror strikes. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, was in London during the recent massacre of schoolchildren in Pakistan – and reached for a familiar analogy. The pupils, he said, he been slain by “Taliban assassins who serve a dark and almost medieval vision”. David Cameron also talks of a “medieval” threat as if we’re witnessing 13th-century morality that has been somehow transplanted to the present day. But the truth is far worse: the medieval world never knew such evil. This one is entirely new.
It’s comforting to think that Isil and the Taliban are destined to fail because they are so anachronistic – that the modern world doesn’t support such barbarism. But the reverse is true. Modernity has made Isil possible: it is a creature of the digital era, a phenomenon as new as the social media on which it so heavily depends. Its methods – beheading some captives, burning others alive – are designed to travel around the world by online video. It recruits people from Cardiff to Brisbane by propaganda which can now go straight into the homes of millions. Like al-Qaeda, which it has surpassed and even appalled with its brutality, it is an evil of our times.