First we react with horror and sympathy. Then anger takes over, perhaps too quickly, and we focus on how we are going to revenge the deaths of innocents and destroy the barbaric enemy who planned and initiated the terrorism. Of course we hunt down the perpetrators who did not die, but we also start inflicting damage on the greater government to which they hold allegiance by all means at our disposal.
But what if we don’t have bombers that can fly thousands of miles? We likely resort to sneak attacks by suicide soldiers and other acts of guerilla warfare. We bring the war home to the other side.
That essentially would be the argument justifying the ISIS attacks on Paris that killed about 130 people, from the ISIS point of view. It’s an argument that all should reject, except those who are in favor of committing acts of violence for political and economic reasons. Which pretty much means every Western government and many of their citizens.
Those whose knowledge of ISIS begins with its blitzkrieg land grab and YouTube beheadings should consider this scenario: A foreign country topples your stable government, bringing anarchy to the land. Hundreds of thousands of your people have been slaughtered, plus many more injured or displaced. You are a patriot who is also devoutly religious, so religious that you are willing to follow the extreme form of it that demands that you inflict your views on others, such as evangelicals frequently do in the United States. These religious views help you engage in savagery when you fight both the external and internal enemies, because these are infidels, or worse yet, nonbelievers dedicated to controlling you and your country and imposing their customs. This last part kind of sounds like the motivation for a lot of Israel’s brutal actions through the years, but the scenario as a whole is what happened in Iraq.
The other scenario to consider is a country whose rebels are being supplied by other countries, thereby weakening the legitimate government so much that different rebel groups control different parts of the country. Both the weak legitimate government and other rebel forces are attacking your rebel group, using weapons supplied by governments in other continents.
These scenarios are not meant to justify ISIS or its actions, but to react to the broadly held notion that it is somehow more barbaric and more evil than the Western governments that have been terrorizing the Middle East for decades and filling the barracks of all sides with sophisticated weaponry. All sides have behaved immorally.
In considering what to do now, there are two basic issues to consider, and we need to keep them separate: One, stop terrorism that destroys innocent lives. Two, bring order to the bloody anarchy that is Iraq and Syria. We must keep in mind that while these objectives are related, the means to obtain them are different.
Let’s first take a look at ending terrorism. The West, and especially the United States, has done a great job in reducing terrorist episodes. Let’s compare the number of people who collectively died in the Russian airplane crash, the Charlie Hebdo and Synagogue massacres and the coordinated attacks on Paris this past week. Counting the Paris attacks as one, we have four separate acts of terrorism and we haven’t reached 500 dead yet. Fourteen years ago, a single act of terror (or four coordinated acts) on 9/11 killed 2,977 (excluding the 19 hijackers). Remember, Al-Qaida was a shadowy group with few adherents, whereas ISIS controls territories and has thousands of soldiers. A more powerful group has inflicted less damage in more attacks. Going further back, there were far more terrorist attacks in the United States in the 1970s than since the turn of the century, although collectively none cost as many lives as 9/11.
Why are acts of terror down? Because all the Western countries, and especially the United States, do a much better job of identifying potential terrorists, weeding out terrorist plots, securing our borders and protecting our airports. In fact, much of the enhanced security instituted after 9/11 has gone over or close to the line of what is appropriate in a free and civil society. What I’m suggesting is that we’re doing enough to prevent terrorism right now, both here and in Europe.
The threat of terrorism will exist as long as a country has enemies which it engages in a shooting war, internal dissidents who feel a special allegiance to the enemy or mentally ill people—ideologically motivated or not—with ready access to guns. In other words, we won’t end terrorism perpetrated by Muslim extremists until the Middle East is stabilized.
And that won’t happen as long as anyone in the Western world is bombing, giving or selling weapons, providing advisors or putting troops on the ground. The lesson of the Paris bloodbath should not be to bomb ISIS and trample on civil liberties. The answer should be to continue to be vigilant domestically, but get the hell out of the business of selling weapons to foreign governments or directly fighting ISIS or Assad or any other side in Syria and Iraq. It’s not a matter of cutting-and-running. It’s a matter of stopping the decades of foolishly messing around in the business of other countries.
Those who want to use the Paris bloodbath as an excuse to deny refugees entrance into France, the United States, Germany or other countries or to persecute Muslim immigrants are blaming millions of innocent hard-working people for the sins of a very few.
The territory that defines Iraq and Syria will eventually grow tired of war, sooner if the main sources of weaponry and financial support dries up. As I have written before, at that point we should be ready to do business with any government dedicated to peace and ready to renounce terrorism moving forward. If that includes ISIS, so be it. We made terms with terrorists such as Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. How is a beheading or taking hostages at a concert venue any different from bombing a business hotel?
I want to close with a comparison between the calls to action raised by most politicians and media outlets in the wake of the Paris bombing and the proposals that routinely surface after a domestic act of terrorism by a lone gunman born and raised in United States, at a school, church or Pilates class, AKA, a mass murder. Since Paris we have had calls to bomb ISIS, put more boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria, end asylum for Syrian refugees (except Christians) and have the National Security Agency begin crossing the line into illegality again. Yet after the mass murders, the same people wanting to strike out at ISIS, often illegally, routinely reject all the known anecdotes for reducing gun violence in America, including waiting periods, stricter standards for ownership, more effective gun registries, laws preventing concealed or unconcealed carrying of firearms and limits to the types of weapons and ammunition that may be purchased. In the United States, at least, we have far more to fear from the collective body of gun owners than the collective body on ISIS jihadists. The equation is a little different in Europe, but then again, the total number of people killed by guns is far, far lower on a per capita basis there than in the United States.
The paradox of wanting to strike out at ISIS but not restrict gun rights is easily explained by the underlying principle that motivates most action by the American governments on all levels—making more money for the ruling elite. By having loose gun laws, we sell more guns. We also sell more guns by reacting to terrorism with an irrational war or military support of one or more factions—be it in the former Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11, or the current ISIS-controlled land. Often the same companies are involved in both private and military armament manufacturing and sales.
Thus, we are completely consistent. We always do what’s best for the domestic and international weapons industry.