The Mideast horrors grow. Latest are the Syrian Kurds in unthought-of numbers, in flight to Turkey, where there already are more than a million refugees from Syria. As if the region were not already thick with refugees from the terrorism practiced by one side or another. But in the next 24 hours there was a reversal, with Kurdish peshmergas heading back across the border to fight the ISIS forces. Harboring the refugees, getting aid and shelter to them, is a worthier and more urgent cause than airstrikes on the ISIS, deserved as they are. Cutting off the heads of aid workers and journalists is nothing in comparison with the degradation and dehumanization being inflicted on the pathetic people of the Middle East by all sides.

The Congress tells President Barack Obama to do something — while reluctant itself to do anything but excoriate the president and party rivals. Let them declare war if they want war. The president says that the United States will halt and “eliminate” the Islamic State, which makes the Congress feel more righteous because it sounds like the declaration of war they have yet to supply. But the number of nations signing up with John Kerry to “support” war on the ground while the United States “leads” from Washington is modest, and Congress is largely uninterested in declaring another war with elections awaiting them in a few weeks.

It is amazing how frightened Americans seem to be by the beheadings. I understand why the dehumanized butcheries practiced by the jihadists create horror, but I don’t understand why it spreads fear among people who have no rational reason for fear. The European governments of countries with sizable Islamic minorities, where excitable young men (and some girls who can’t imagine what unspeakable things may happen to them) have been making their way to Turkey to get across the border and join the jihad, are justifiably jittery: What if these young people come back to practice Holy War at home? But the evidence suggests that among those who have left, most that arrive back do so in shock, looking for peace rather than more war.

Fear in the United States is harder to understand. Like Charles Dickens’ Fat Boy in Pickwick Papers, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the New Islamic Caliphate’s self-appointed leader, says “I want to make your flesh creep,” and succeeds, reciting all the horrible things he wants his supposedly worldwide admirers to do to the infidels. Some Americans seem nervously to feel at their throats when they hear him. I remember when after 9/11 some right-wing Americans were circulating emails warning their friends that people were going about trying to install Sharia law in their hometown courts. They proved to be more in danger from the gun lobby.

How would the ISIS horde get to America? The airlines won’t take them (so long as they are carrying their AK-47s or rocket-launchers). Chartering a big cruise liner might be more practical, since they could bring their American-captured armored trucks and machine-gun mounted pick-ups. There would be better food (although not halal), and they could behead the captains and crew before debarking in Hoboken or Fort Lauderdale — so as to dispose of witnesses. But I feel confident that Homeland Security would be at the pier and on the job.

American and Allied institutions abroad are at risk, but so they have been since George W. Bush declared the Global War on Terror and invaded Iraq, employing the tactics of shock and awe. Terror has been à la mode for some time now. There is nothing new in this. The United States refrained from criticism recently when some two thousand Gaza civilians were killed in order to warn their compatriots not to elect Hamas militants to preside over their walled-in seaside community.

The Mideast is a dangerous place to live. It became a great deal more dangerous after the United States began serious military interventions there, in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 attacks. Mr. Obama was elected promising to put an end to all that and bring the boys home to their families. He was doing fine until Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi discovered that he had a mission to make a better world by way of proclaiming the new Caliphate.

But does the market really exist for this new institution? Despite the U.S. and French air attacks (so far), ISIS has not been overrunning everyone on the ground. In Iraq last year and currently in Afghanistan, elected governments have resisted the proposition of long-term American presence in their countries.

One would think that in current circumstances the presence of Americans back in the region would be a blatant invitation to further attack. Americans are the ones ISIS says that it wants to kill — at home or abroad. The stated reason for al Qaeda’s assault on New York and Washington a decade ago was to punish the Americans for compelling Saudi Arabia to accept the blasphemy of American warplanes and infidel airmen and soldiers stationed near the Islamic holy places. Why don’t Mr. Obama and some of the less hysterical senators and congressmen take a hint? The Arabs are not asking us to lead them. The Arabs seem to be handing us our hats, saying to us, “What’s your hurry?” Taking the hint could even make the American people happy voters.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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