President Obama, speaking on James Foley’s horrendous beheading, said that ISIS’s ideology was “nihilistic”. The sheer wrongness of the president’s assertion is mind-boggling. To be clear, ISIS—or now, just IS?—is a despicable and evil group. They are motivated by a hateful ideology, and in its name do terrible things. The murder of James Foley is one example. As is the attempted genocide against the Yazidi Christians—which, we should note, persists, despite America’s halfhearted effort to stay the killings. However, none of this amounts to ISIS embracing nihilism. Obama’s terminological mistake highlights a troubling lack of understanding, a fundamental confusion regarding the nature of the threat posed by Islamist extremism.

Nihilism, with no added qualifier, is the rejection of one or multiple value(s) traditionally understood as meaningful. However, when most people say nihilism, they mean existential nihilism. Existential nihilism is the belief that human life is without any intrinsic value and meaning—the word “intrinsic” is important, as many assert that humans can create their own value. Nihilists arrive at this conclusion by starting off from a place of radical skepticism where any and all epistemological attempts fail. If one accepts this proposition—that knowledge is impossible, that, to quote Nietzsche, “there is no true world” – then the aimlessness of life and its lack of value become obvious.

Obviously, nihilism precludes religion. What is more antithetical to the creed of nothingness—nihilism, from the Latin nihil, meaning “nothing”—than an ultimately unfalsifiable belief in a theistic cosmic order? But ISIS, if it is anything, is an Islamist group. This is not to say that it accurately represents Islam. Rather, all I mean is that ISIS believes itself to be representing a particular form of Islam, a form they maintain is true Islam. Of this, there can be little doubt.

So, upon reflection, it appears that ISIS is the opposite of nihilistic: they are extreme theistic ideologues. Why, then, did the president make the mistake of calling them “nihilistic”? How could this Ivy Leaguer forget a definition that is surely made clear in freshmen philosophy?

In the president’s thinking there is an apparent conflation between believing life has no meaning, and believing that life can be summarily taken. This makes no sense. Indeed, the very reason ISIS executes and commits genocide is exactly because life is meaningful: by virtue of being alive, we are able to serve as worshipers of or affronts to God; through life, we are able to be affected by and, in some ways, affect a transcendent God. Meaning in our lives is inherent because we cannot choose whether or not to have a relationship with God.

In other words: if life has no meaning, why go through the trouble killing people? Doesn’t it seem consistent to say that if someone’s life has no meaning there is no added value in killing them? A meaningless life does not need to be annihilated as much as it does not need to exist. A zeal to purge themselves of infidels, as I am sure ISIS styles all of their foes, suggests a belief that life is important, and therefore one must care when it is spent in opposition to God.

The mistake is as important as it is (perhaps esoterically) interesting because it points to a grave misunderstanding that the president holds. Essentially, his confusion stems from an inability to understand the thinking of those in ISIS. If he cannot understand them, how can he defeat them?

For millennia, philosophers have puzzled over the question of what is the good life. For many in the West—not necessarily philosophers, but surely many regular people—the good life is one of relative prosperity and peace; the American dream is to be left alone in a home one himself owns. The good life requires freedom and financial independence, if not wealth. This appears to be self-evident.

It is therefore difficult to imagine that someone might genuinely want a life where seemingly arbitrary external restrictions are placed on them. To want to live under Sharia is to totally reject our Western conception of life. Thus, many tell themselves that no one authentically wants Islamofascism: turning to ISIS or Al-Qaeda or Hamas is an option of last resort, a desperate effort to push back against whatever forces keep them from experiencing a true good life. In short, radical Islam is just a sublimated desire to be free.

To me, this is the most dangerous, condescending, and pervasive form of imperialism, an imperialism of mind and ideology, whereby the only rational way of life is our own. But what so many fail to realize is that people genuinely want different things, that there are consistent ethical systems that compete with ours, and that our enemies are rational.

Max Weber described what he called value rational actions: actions that are oriented towards satisfying a value, not a goal. This implies a disregard for consequences. It is hard for people like us in the West, who prize freedom and prosperity—outcomes—to understand how someone could sacrifice their material conditions for a value. But they can. And they do. Once we understand that ISIS indeed wants what they say they want, not just that they think they want it, and that their actions are rational pursuits of a valued end, we can begin to deal with them.

To realize this point—coming to grips with the authenticity of radical Islamists’ beliefs—was something very difficult for me. For some time, I styled myself something of neoconservative. At least, I believed firmly that all peoples desired freedom, and that any legitimate form of government had to in some way pay homage to that immutable human fact. I owe a debt, therefore, to Aristotle and Malcolm Gladwell: they are the Hume to my Kant, just in that they “first interrupted my dogmatic slumber.” Aristotle shows how there can be a best form of government in the abstract, but that there might be a particular best form of government for different people. Gladwell first introduced me to value rational actions—a thought that had been germinating in my mind for some time, but with no real clarity or direction—in a tremendous article on the Waco tragedy. I recommend his article, linked in the previous sentence, as it becomes increasingly more apposite each day.

Nothing I have written should be understood as moral equivocation. I firmly support our way of life, and reject theirs. When the president denounces ISIS as barbaric and cruel, I agree. What I want to show is that some people embrace barbarism and cruelty not because circumstances force them to, but because their ideology does. We do not serve ourselves by making excuses for our enemies—as some do with Hamas—by claiming they adopt the horrendous pathologies they do only as a means to reach freedom. Neither do we make progress by refusing to understand their ideology for what it is: deliberate, genuine, and rational.

If we recognize this, we can clearly see that there is no compromise with these thugs. We cannot deal with the problem of radical Islam by mediating economic and political conditions in the Middle East. There is either acceptance or rejection. In other words, the only way to deal with ISIS is to destroy them completely.