Paris is burning. Not literally – not yet, anyway – but the city is living in fear of more jihadist attacks and facing an uncertain future. Sound familiar?
If it doesn’t, you don’t live in the Middle East or North Africa, in any Arab country, for that matter, but especially Syria, Iraq, or the so-called Occupied Territories – Gaza and the West Bank. Imagine Paris as Beirut – a city once famous for its wealth and beauty, now a burnt out shell – and the origins of the most recent terrorist attacks in Paris – the great showcase of western civilization – emerge into clear view.
Cities like London, New York, and Paris are prosperous in no small part because they are financial and cultural centers. That was once also true of Beirut. Paris and Beirut had that in common, but it all changed in the 1970s when Lebanon became a war zone. Now Paris is one, too.
Tragically, Paris and Beirut once again have something in common – both are victims in a war without rules, a war of attrition, a war aimed at states in which stateless killers target civilians. A war fought for ill-defined political and ideological goals its victims often can’t understand and have no power to grant.
According to The New York Times, these latest attacks, “coming less than a year after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, have traumatized France and the rest of Europe, elevating fears of religious extremism and violent jihadists who have been radicalized by the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.” At last count, 129 people died and more than 350 were injured – a terrible toll French President Hollande called, “an act of war”.
An act of war, perhaps, but also a vicious criminal act, the kind of unspeakable crime for which there’s no justification, only a reason. To understand the reason, consider this: the day before the Paris attacks, the BBC carried a story with this headline:
“Lebanon holds a day of mourning after deadly Beirut blasts.”
At least 41 people died in two suicide bombings, “the deadliest in the capital since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990.” Let’s be clear: Muslims are NOT the problem, they are also victims. Jihadists are the problem. Far more Muslims than Westerners have suffered at the hands of ISIS, al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists.
Back to the reason for these attacks, the reason beyond all reason. Fanaticism is the obvious answer, but it begs the question. What is the source? What motivates these self-sacrificing, mass-murdering maniacs?
In one sense, it doesn’t matter if the fanaticism is rooted in religion or ideology or raw emotion. The latter – raw emotion – assumes the form of burning hatred that makes carriers want to burn us – all of us – indiscriminately, burn down everything we cherish, destroy not only the symbols and edifices we associate with civilization but also, and more irretrievably, our way of life.
Why? The seeds of anti-Western feeling in the Arab world were planted long ago during the early-modern heyday of European imperialism. The legacy of subjugation under colonial rule is only half the story, and not the worst half. What followed when Europe’s one-time Great Powers divested themselves of their colonial empires was a train wreck on a global scale.
Go to any Arab, Asian, or African country today and ask people to explain the endemic poverty, corruption, and conflict that have plagued them since independence and they will most likely blame it all on the curse of colonialism, on the West. They will tell you that when Europe’s Great Powers pulled out they left a bitter legacy, including unnatural boundaries drawn so randomly as to condemn the new nation-states to never-ending conflict.
In the Middle East and elsewhere, modern mercantilism, political intrigue, and military intervention have added insult to injury. Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are the most egregious and disastrous cases. Although all three are made-in-America, the non-Western world tends to conflate America and Europe and blame both for the sins of one or the either. That France and the United States have been primary targets of Arab terrorism is not an accident.
The US-led NATO alliance reinforced the idea that America and Europe were co-conspirators in a neo-colonialist plot to control the postwar world. The post 9-11 “war on terror” revived that spectre.
Overthrowing a government to save a nation in the name of “humanitarian intervention” or “nation-building” doesn’t fool anybody. Certainly it doesn’t fool the people who have to live and die with the consequences. What’s worse, it doesn’t work. It failed in Vietnam. Failed in Iraq. Failed in Afghanistan.
The terrorist attacks in New York on 9-11 and Paris two days ago put this policy failure on exhibit for all the world to see. The attacks demonstrate the powerlessness of police, armies, navies, and air forces in dealing with this kind of threat. They demonstrate the power of the powerless to strike fear, destabilize governments, disrupt societies, and cripple economies. (Paris received 22.4 million visitors in 2014. Tourists spent $17 billion that year, the third-highest in the world after London and New York. In the city of Paris, over 18 percent of the total number of salaried worker are engaged in tourism-related sectors: hotels, restaurants, transport and leisure.)
The response of France’s President Hollande is to close the borders and declare a state of emergency. Closing borders is antithetical to the New Europe, which is all about open borders. A state of emergency is a euphemism for suspending the rule of law. So much for freedom and justice in France Fifth “Republic”.
Sadly, there’s no military solution for dealing with suicidal hatred, only a political one, namely asphyxiation. Deprive it of oxygen. Take away what it needs to live and breathe, namely the refusal to admit any guilt for past wrongs while pursuing current policies that continue to grievously offend.
Of course, nothing, not even the sorry history of Western intrusions, justifies terrorism. Nor is it fair to blame the West for all the ills that have befallen the Arab world. Arab calamities are in no small part self-inflicted. But, to repeat, Arabs, Muslims, and Arab Muslims have been victims, too, and they are not to blame for what just happened in Paris.
France stood with us after 9-11. The time has come to return the favor. We can start by recognizing the mistakes of the past and resolving never to repeat them. Vanquishing terrorism is a win-win for the planet. Ask anybody in Paris or Beirut.