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This past month has seen a sudden proliferation of horrific attacks on ordinary people apparently committed by the self-described Islamic State, or ISIS. Between the slaughter in Paris, the bombs in Beirut, Baghdad, and Ankara, and the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai, we are seeing an intensification of the random use of violence against the general population to score political points. 

People hold hands to form a human solidarity chain near the site of the attack at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris   - Pascal Rossignol, Reuters 2015

Having lived through Al Qaeda’s attack on New York City some 14 years ago, I can imagine how the survivors feel—the deep sense of loss, the impression that my city has been deeply violated, that spaces I had considered perfectly safe were now suddenly menacing.

Nothing can justify these despicable attacks. They are an affront to the most basic principles of human rights, which value human life over its cheap manipulation for some cause. 

ISIS at first blush may seem immune to the traditional shaming of the human rights movement. But even ISIS must draw recruits and build support, and we can make that more difficult by showing the ugly reality of the political order that it would prescribe—the sexual enslavement of women, the casual execution of people for the slightest “offense” or for being of the “wrong” religion or political background, the imposed rigidity of an imagined pre-modern era. We can highlight the offense to practicing Muslims around the world that the architects of such cruelty and inhumanity would deem their regime “Islamic.”

But the human rights movement’s defense against ISIS depends on far more than our reporting on ISIS. In our day-to-day work documenting and denouncing all violations of human rights—including in governments’ reaction to ISIS and other such groups—we reinforce the basic values that enable the world to condemn the actions of ISIS as so abhorrent. Tending the fundamental rights and freedoms that usually contains such aberrations is essential for rejecting this particularly ugly one.

So at a moment of horror and shock, at a moment when those of us who confront these issues may be feeling doubt and despair, it is important to remember that these outrages to our core principles provide all the more urgent reason for us to carry out our work. The human rights principles that ISIS has been flouting with increasing depravity cannot be taken for granted. It is at moments of profound challenge like today that our defense of them is most important.

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