The lead story in The New York Times informs readers that France “has been conducting scores of airstrikes against the Islamic Republic in Iraq” but bombing Syria “only sparingly” until now. It’s understandable to want to hit back against the perpetrators of these atrocities. But bombing is too blunt an instrument because terrorists live, move and seek refuge within civilian populations: “…the targeted sites [reportedly] included clinics, a museum and other buildings in an urban area, leaving the full extent of the damage unknown.”
If you were a child growing up in Iraq or Syria with bombs falling from the sky and no hope of a better life, who would you blame? What would you think? Who would you believe?
How would we react if the tables were turned, if we were being bombed and occupied by a Muslim nation that had only recently overthrown our government? Would we – at least some of us – not sympathize with militants who demand justice and seek revenge. Would we see them as extremists to oppose or heroes to emulate?
The attempt to contain terrorism by using old-fashioned military force is a consequence of thinking inside the box, it’s what we did during the Cold War. We want a quick fix. A cure. We want surgery, not chemotherapy.
But jihadist terrorism is more like a rapidly metastasizing cancer than a gallstone attack. To borrow Mao’s metaphor, terrorists are like fish in the sea. They need sympathizers to hide them, feed them, and supply them with new recruits. The only way to defeat terrorists is to drain or dry up the “sea” (sympathy) without which terrorists – like Mao’s guerrillas – can’t thrive.
When we are hit we react predictably – cower if we are weak, hit back – harder – if we are strong. It’s natural and justifiable. It’s self-defense, payback with interest.
Imagine a belligerent drunk punches the wrong guy in a bar. Imagine the “wrong guy” is a prizefighter whose fists are lethal weapons. Imagine he hits the drunk, knocks him down, picks him up, proceeds to beat him senseless. But the drunk wasn’t drinking alone. He was barhopping with some friends. They try to intervene to stop the beating. The women scream at him to stop and somebody yells at the bartender to call the police. The prizefighter flies into a rage and hits one of the friends who goes down and doesn’t get back up. The police arrive. The guy on the floor is dead.
What does any of this have to do with the West’s reaction to terrorist incidents like the ones that ripped the peace of Paris to shreds last week? The prizefighter’s response to being hit is perfectly understandable – he hits back. France’s response to being hit – repeatedly – is equally understandable. Hit back and hit hard. But how?
The prizefighter (unlike Hollande) knew exactly who to punch. Had he stopped after hitting the guy who hit him first he would have been blameless in the eyes of the law and any objective onlookers. But he didn’t. Remember: he’s a prizefighter. His fists are weapons. He has now killed a man who didn’t start the fight with those weapons.
He’s in big trouble with the law now; what’s more, witnesses no longer sympathize with him; nor will the larger society when news of his arrest and stories about what happened are reported in the press. The prizefighter is facing criminal prosecution, but his problems are not merely legal. Now the public perception of a bad-tempered bully overshadows any and all attempts to exonerate him.
In politics, the public’s perception of the facts is often more important than the actual facts. Perceptions ARE political facts. It’s totally unrealistic to ignore what people think about what’s happening around them. The fact is that an indeterminate – but specific – number of terrorist co-conspirators perpetrated the most recent atrocities in Paris; the political reality is that many, if not most, Westerners, to say nothing of Parisians, blame Muslims and Arabs in general.
Bombing Syria to stop the terrorists is like pouring gas on a grease fire in the kitchen to stop it from burning the house down. It’s natural to want to pour liquid on a fire, to do something and do it fast. But panic is not conducive to clear thinking, the only kind likely to produce a good or desirable outcome.
ISIS is a cancer for which there’s no sure cure, no quick fix. Bombing Syria won’t stop ISIS from growing, just the opposite.
Imagine how we would react if a foreign country bombed a city in the United States even once. Or don’t imagine it – simply think how we reacted when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Now imagine how we’d react in the post-9-11 period if we were bombed by a Muslim country.
Bombing Syrian population centers might make sense if – and only if – all Arabs or all Muslims or at least all Syrians were somehow responsible. But that’s clearly not the case – if it were, why would so many Syrians, for example, be fleeing to the West?
If your answer is that they’re all terrorists trying to destroy France from the inside, that’s absurd on its face. Speaking of faces, many that we see when we watch the nightly news in the comfort of our family rooms belong to homeless women and children trekking across territory where they have no relatives, no rights, and no recourse – refugees, in other words.
Ask yourself how effective bombing terrorists has been so far. Then ask how we would react if, having colonized us and created borders we don’t recognize but can’t change, they exploited a precious resource, expatriated the profits, maintained military bases throughout the region, invaded our sovereign territory, bombed civilians, occupied our cities, overthrew our government, and created a domestic power vacuum amounting to slow-motion anarchy.
France is a Christian country bombing Iraq and Syria. Before France started the bombing, the US and the UK, also Christian countries, were bombing them. Before that, the US invaded and occupied Iraq. And so on. Syrians can easily construct a narrative that leads to a time when France and the UK effectively ruled the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine) plus Iraq. When the colonial overlords pulled out after World War II, they drew lines on maps – borders – that often conformed to no logic based on pre-existing historical, religious, or linguistic patterns.
Small wonder, then, that many Arabs blame the West for condemning the Middle East to never-ending conflict. It doesn’t matter if that’s fair (self-absolution in the face of catastrophic failure seldom is.)
We’re not eradicating terrorism, we’re playing right into the hands of the extremists. There’s no quick fix. Any long-term solution will be exactly that – long-term. Washington hasn’t hit the reset button, hasn’t rebooted our foreign policy in any fundamental way, since the late 1940s.
Either that has to change or nothing will ever change. And we will all – whether Christians, Muslims, or whatever – be the losers. Including the children of France and Syria.