Like most people I know, I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent Islamic State attacks in Paris — and instead of doing what I normally do, which is talk my friends’ ears off by going through some extremely long-winded stream of consciousness, I decided to attempt to put some of it down in writing.
Besides the obvious feelings of sadness and anger, I’m struck by just how difficult and complex the challenge of international terrorism really is. And because it is so heartbreaking, jarring, and hard to understand, governments and countries lose the ability to combat it in a rational and effective way.
Today, a friend passed me Hamilton Nolan’s article on Gawker “Terrorism Works”, which is great because I agree with it in every respect (it was published shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January). I especially took to this part:
“The attacks of September 11 were a spectacular success. Is there any other honest interpretation? They were a success not because of the Americans they killed that day, but because we chose to spend the next decade mired in hopeless, counterproductive global wars that cost us trillions of dollars and killed thousands more Americans and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Terrorists wanted to show the world that we were brutal and unjust, and we did our best to help them do that. Terrorists wanted a war, and we gave them one. And we lost. We lost by giving them the stupid, fearful, angry response that they wanted.”
And given that yesterday’s attack is being called “France’s 9/11” and is similar in scale in terms of how jarring it was, it’s important to compare ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda once was a powerful international force that had the wherewithal to attack Western countries directly. Eventually, after a decades-long effort that cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, we have finally stripped it of those abilities, at least for the most part.
Now ISIS has risen — the same exact ideology with different window dressing. The ideas that have spawned Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, etc. have not gone anywhere, even as the particular organizations and people involved have changed thanks to incredibly costly Western action. Except, this time, it’s more violent and in control of more resources, people, and land.
Are the United States, France, and their allies prepared to commit to an even more massive effort to “defeat” ISIS? Why would we ever undertake that mission when we already did it once and it was completely unsuccessful in eliminating terrorism from the world?
Many world leaders have come out after these attacks and said wonderful, inspiring things about standing united to protect freedom and an open way of life. But then, talk turns to bringing those responsible to justice and stamping out international terrorism by confronting it head on after this “act of war.”
What does that mean? How? By sending soldiers to Syria and killing everyone? By bombing people’s homes in the hopes that it will pacify them? By refusing to grant asylum to refugees and leaving them to die over the winter?
Or by changing our society? Increasing security checks, heightening surveillance, and sacrificing what terrorists are trying to make us give up?
The ultimate Catch 22 — we feel that standing idly by is an unacceptable response but by lashing out with knee-jerk reactions we only make things worse.
Unfortunately, though, the rhetoric of direct conflict with ISIS has already creeped into the statements of politicians of all stripes. To give two examples:
Sen. Marco Rubio:
“This is a clash of civilizations, and … there is no middle ground on this. Either they win or we win.”
White House Spokesman Ben Rhodes:
[W]e’ve been at war with ISIL for some time. Over more than a year now we’ve conducted thousands of airstrikes…clearly there’s going to have to be an intensification of our efforts.”
Can there be any question that this response is not exactly what the terrorists want? Headlines like “On Terror, We’re All Right-wingers Now” only encapsulate the public’s intense anger and its desire for governments to take drastic, aggressive action.
To quote Nolan again:
Two men with a rifle paralyze Washington, DC for weeks. Two men with a couple of homemade bombs paralyze Boston for days. One man on a plane with a dud bomb packed inside his boots has an entire nation taking off its shoes at the airport for years to come. A small group of religious zealots send three U.S. presidential administrations down a nightmarish rabbit hole of drone war, torture, and total surveillance of the citizenry.
Instead, this time, we need to contain ISIS where it is today and acknowledge that while terrorism will never be completely eliminated, there are ways of diminishing it without resorting to a disproportionally violent response. Rather than looking for a quick fix that makes us feel better, by slowly working to improve the economical and social situations of society at large, we can cut off the rationale for people to become terrorists in the first place.
That means doing effectively nothing when an attack happens and ignoring terrorists who taunt the West from their enclaves, as hard as it is. That means working over the course of decades to actively support stable governments, and higher investment in things like public health, education, and foreign aid. That means doing things like ending the War on Drugs, which has allowed terrorists and other criminals to finance themselves for decades by creating lucrative black markets.
This process would take decades, and surely there would be other attacks that would threaten to break our resolve. But the only alternative is an endless quagmire of wars and broken principles, which unfortunately has been the strategy of the West for my entire lifetime.
All of this is very sad and points to a dark near-term future for countries and millions of people all over the world. But at the same time, it’s crucial to remember the technologies, innovations, and knowledge that enable modern terrorism to exist and thrive have also made the lives of the vast majority of humanity immeasurably better by making us smarter, healthier, and freer. Things are certainly not as bad as they seem, and terrorism is simply a type of crime —which history has shown us is impossible to stop completely but possible to limit.
Now, leaders and peoples around the globe are confronted with how to respond to these terrible Paris bombings. I just hope that cooler heads prevail and everyone realizes that to win in the long term and reduce terrorism, we need to change the pattern and not keep giving the terrorists what they want. Tragically, terrorist attacks will always happen and when they do, we can’t keep falling into the same trap.
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