La Guerre Éternelle
Well, that was unexpected, wasn’t it?
Another major terrorist attack on a Western city was probably inevitable, but it was still shocking. The coordinated attacks on various locations in Paris on a busy weekend, by all indications planned and carried out by members of ISIS, left over a hundred innocent people dead and has plunged the entire world into mourning. Paris has seen terrorist violence before, and not always at the hands of Muslims; this isn’t even the first time it was hit this year. (It also was not, as is being widely reported, the worst massacre in the city’s history this century. That shame belongs to the 1961 massacre of Algerian Muslims by the police.) But let that go for now. Regardless of precedent, circumstance, or order, the attacks were brutal, horrific crimes against people who had done nothing to provoke such a response. The specifics of the killings are harrowing, and in some ways, crossed a line that had so far not been crossed by terrorist action.
That the perpetrators should be found and punished with as much severity that the law can muster is without question. The innocent blood has been lamented all over the globe, including by — indeed, especially by — Muslims; despite the constant claim by bigots and reactionaries that adherents of Islam do not do enough to oppose extremist violence, the Muslim world has always condemned such actions, and (it has become tedious to point this out) Muslims themselves are the most frequent victims of such violence, by a grossly disproportionate degree. The Paris attacks have already produced their own villains and their own unimaginable tragedies (and, thankfully, their own heroes as well) — as have the other horrendous terrorist attacks that took place at the same time, and have gotten more or less media and public attention thanks to a complex tangle of resources, expectations, and assumptions for which we all share the blame.
With the actions a fait accompli and the mourning something that will happen for the rest of many peoples’ lives, what falls to the authorities is what to do about preventing future massacres, and what falls to us is to hold them accountable. That this violence will be answered with violence is not even up for debate; it, too, is a fait accompli, and one which, by some reports, has had the same depressingly counterproductive effects as all such uses of state military power against a nebulous and amorphous target. In some ways, we are seeing a curious reversal of the events of 2003, as history repeats itself in a funhouse mirror: back then, when George W. Bush sought allies for a bogus invasion of Iraq that he clumsily attempted to tie to the 9/11 attacks, France refused, leading to a wave of moronic jingoism in certain quarters here in America. Now, with French leader François Hollande urging the EU to join him in attacking Syria — whose ongoing civil war encompasses dozens of factions, and whose ties to the Paris attacks are not likely to be broken by a bombing campaign — our current president, Barack Obama, has decided not to commit ground troops to the battle.
As has been pointed out many times, this sort of warfare — saturation-bombing from the air and hoping for the best on the ground — is ineffective, simplistic, unimaginative, and far more destructive than the attacks that trigger it. It is popular simply because it is so easy; it is low-risk on the part of the aggressor and produces vast amounts of showy, camera-friendly destruction with very little chance of one’s own forces being placed in harm’s way, as no terrorist organization to date has managed to acquire an air force or a missile defense system. Unfortunately, even with advances in electronic targeting and drone warfare, it is a terribly imprecise means of carrying out a military campaign. Even when it works the way it’s supposed to, it results in a far more vast number of civilians killed than enemy combatants, When it doesn’t, it produces exactly the kind of resentment and hatred of the West that leads many experts to note that Islamist terrorism really isn’t about religion at all, but about geopolitical struggles that stem from colonialism, imperialism, resource warfare, and preserving a corrupt status quo that keeps morally suspect elites in power at the expense of their own people.
This last factor is particularly critical in deciding what our next steps should be in combating terrorism. We simply cannot continue our policy of acting as if the entire world is subject to the whim of Western superpowers, an attitude that has bred resentment and violence wherever it has been practiced. For decades, we supported the most brutal dictators imaginable in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South and Central America, provided they framed their murderous corruption as part of the fight against socialism; this policy has carried through into the post-Soviet era as our priorities have shifted to maintaining our energy policy, feeding our economic engine, and favoring one side or the other in wars of convenience. No matter how many times it happens, we seem incapable of learning the lesson that we cannot forever support a vicious autocrat who cruelly abuses his own people, as long as he does so to our own advantage; eventually, he will either turn on us after falling victim to his own ambition or lose power through death or revolt, at which point his long-suffering subjects are not likely to forget who it was who helped keep his boot on their throats for so long.
The fact that so many ISIS leaders are former members of the Ba’athist power structure of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is not a coincidence, but the the inevitable outcome of the heartless logic of our foreign policy. The ruthless dictator Saddam enjoyed our favor so long as he opposed Khomeini’s Iran; Khomeini overthrew the ruthless dictator Pahlevi, who enjoyed our favor so long as he opposed Iran’s own nationalist and socialist elements, and so on. From Trujillo and Somoza to Diem and Chiang Kai-Shek, from Syngman Rhee and Chun Doo-Han to Musharraf and Mubarak, our tendency to back the most openly undemocratic leaders because it suits us at the moment has come back to bite us on the ass time and time again. So, too, must we demand accountability from our current allies, and insist that if they are to continue to receive our support, they must stop using it to help these murderous fringe groups. Either the terrorists get cut off or they do; it’s a choice we must force them to make. This will mean standing up to entrenched oligarchs — something we are hugely reluctant to do even in our own country — but the alternative is rivers of innocent blood.
We must also take a moment to consider the difference between violence and war. There cannot be one without the other, but while violence — the use of force against others — is almost certainly unavoidable in combatting terrorism, war — the use of the entirety of a country’s resources in a concerted and ongoing application of largely indiscriminate violence against another country’s population — is not. It may be good sport to mock pacifism in the face of such threats, but almost no one is advocating that we do nothing. Again, military responses to terrorism are so common because they are so easy; they satisfy a basic lust for violent retaliation, and they provide a justification for massive military expenditures (about which see more below), but there is precious little evidence that they are effective. Defeating terrorist organizations is a fiendishly difficult process that requires a number of approaches: thwarting their plots using intelligence; stopping their operatives with police powers; shutting down their access to capital and materiel; removing their social and cultural support by changing the way they are perceived by ordinary people at home and abroad; and even by bringing them into the diplomatic and political process. None of these things are easy, but history and research shows they are far more effective than mere blunt shows of force. We must ask important questions when intelligence and policing fail, but we abandon them in favor of mass slaughter at our collective peril.
There are always those — and we are seeing them now, crawling out of the political woodwork like the malevolent grubs they are — who use such crises as political capital to pursue their own self-serving agendas. This is a crucial moment to be on the lookout for these cynical, hateful profiteers: there is no better time for them than right now to use our fear and uncertainty to advance an agenda hostile to the common interest. This can take the form of fattening their own pockets off of big defense contracts, weakening the position of organized labor, seizing the foreign policy agenda for their own gains, taking financial advantage of political shifts, or simply further marginalizing the already marginal, but whatever form it takes, it’s pure garbage, and we cannot let them fatten themselves on it at the cost of human life.
Most of all, we must not, above all else, let the provocation of terrorists — the very heightening of contradictions they set out to effect, the very reason for their actions — make us lose sight of the freedom and humanity. That is what they are trying to destroy, and what we are trying to protect. If we let threats cow us into giving up those qualities that separate us from the terrorists to begin with, then we are doing their job for them. We have already voluntarily sacrificed far too much that our enemies would have had to take from us by force: our commitment to due process, our right to privacy, our ability to wage a just war, our aversion to torture, our religious tolerance, our belief in a pluralistic society, our devotion to civil liberties, and billions of dollars of our common wealth. Now we are being tempted to voluntarily sacrifice our basic human compassion, in the form of refusing asylum to refugees from war-torn Syria.
Never mind that we played a major part in the deterioration of the political situation in Syria in the first place. Never mind that providing assistance to refugees is a basic social responsibility, and that the governors rushing to the bottom in their tough-on-terror poses don’t possess the power to do what they promise. Never mind that you’re more likely to die from someone texting while driving than from being killed by a refugee, or that rumors that the Paris killers posed as refugees are tenuous at best. Never mind, even, that our own history of accepting refugees is pretty shameful, and that it is a country’s moral duty to allow for medical care of even enemy combatants during war. Consider only what possible moral credence can be lent to a country when someone making claim to its leadership believes that four-year-old children should be sent away to die, and ask yourself what might be worth saving in a country whose goals are identical to those of its enemies.
Vive le France. May there not be a next time.