The horrifying attacks by ISIS/ISIL (I’m going to call them ISIS) in France on Friday, November 13, 2015, have, quite rightly, captured the attention of the world. Major media has talked about little else, political candidates have been issuing statements, and I’ve seen lots of Twitter and Facebook profiles temporarily adorned with the French tricolor in solidarity. Now France, NATO and the world must determine how best to respond to this attack. While I certainly hope ISIS is satisfied, I doubt they are; there could be even more devastating attacks to come, and the terrorist group has promised exactly that. I’m not a policymaker or in any position of power. But I do know a little about history, and from that standpoint the one piece of advice I can offer to those who are in charge of crafting a response is this: let us not respond out of anger or fear. That will only make it worse, and it’s exactly what ISIS wants us to do.
Terrorism is the tactic of non-state actors, or (more occasionally than it might seem) states who don’t have the powerful and expensive military establishments that superpowers possess. It’s sort of a bargain-basement, deep-discount form of warfare. That said, groups that use terrorism are no less intelligent, incisive or strategic in their thinking than the powerful states they often target. ISIS knows it couldn’t defeat France militarily. The way to harm France–or the United States–is to provoke them into a response that would be disastrous, unwise, or not well thought-out. The key to doing this is through fear and anger, which are the truly powerful weapons a group like ISIS possesses, far more dangerous than their AK-47s or explosive devices.
ISIS is a threat that will not be easily overcome; most people in the West know very little about them.
Terrorists are very good at doing this. Osama bin Laden, when he masterminded the September 11 attacks, was not merely going for some sort of symbolic victory against the United States; he was trying to provoke the U.S. into invading Afghanistan, which in bin Laden’s mind would literally bring about the collapse of the United States as a world power. He believed this because he thought the Soviet Union fell as a result of its disastrous quagmire war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. Bin Laden’s geopolitical thinking was shallow and distorted–the Afghan war was a factor, but hardly the single biggest one in the collapse of the USSR–but you have to admit that he did achieve some significant “quagmiring,” because we’re still tied down in Afghanistan 14 years later and we can’t seem to get out. ISIS may hope that the France attack, or whatever other awful acts their sick minds are planning, draws Western powers into an even more horrific conflict across the wider Middle East.
More than this, I think, ISIS is trying to stoke and amplify the seeds of fear and hatred that already exist in Western countries–specifically regarding Muslim immigrants, including refugees from the very conflict in Syria in which ISIS is fighting. You’d have to be blind not to see that xenophobia, the fear of “the other,” is rising in advanced Western countries. France in particular has had considerable internal conflict regarding Muslim immigrants and whether they are, or should aspire to be, truly “French.” This is doubtless one reason why ISIS attacked Paris. The world has recently woken up to the horrifying conditions endured by refugees fleeing Syria. ISIS wants you to fear and hate refugees and tell your politicians not to let them into your country.
The lesson Osama bin Laden drew from the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s was that Afghanistan was the “graveyard of empires.” 9/11 was an attempt to bring the United States there.
Unfortunately it’s working. Since Friday’s tragedy there have been loud calls in numerous countries, including the U.S., to shut all doors to Syrian refugees. Several American Presidential candidates, including Donald Trump (who has built his political platform on urging people to hate and fear others), have echoed these calls. ISIS wants Western countries to be more fearful, to hate more people–especially Muslims–and to pull back any sort of welcome mat for them, which they know will invariably cause these countries to be less free. They know exactly what we’ll do in these situations, because we’ve done it before.
I recall that the 9/11 attacks made me very angry. It wasn’t just the day-of, or the week after or a few months after; I was deeply angry for years afterward, and nothing but swift, strong and terrible retribution, preferably the explosive kind, against Al-Qaeda and their allies would satisfy me. As a society we were not just angry, but we were frightened. The PATRIOT Act, Guantanamo Bay, expanded surveillance powers, drone attacks–all of these things were done more out of fear than prudence. These, along with the invasion of Afghanistan, were exactly the responses Osama bin Laden hoped for. Why did we give him those victories? Maybe it was because we could think of nothing better to do, but at least part of it was because we were afraid.
This was one of the most traumatic events in American history. Could some of our reactions to it have been more considered?
The Iraq War of 2003 was also a response that came more from fear than from reason. While the decision and the process of going to war was very complex–I should know, I taught a whole college course on it–I think at the root of it was a deep fear that some state actor who possessed weapons of mass destruction might someday give them to a terrorist group, and a nuclear or biochemical 9/11 attack would be the result. Invading Iraq was, in the minds of some of the war’s architects, a “demonstration” that they hoped other rogue states would take to heart. History shows it was a disastrous decision. Might we have avoided it if we came up with a response that stressed reason, strategic thinking, proportionality, and a clear and morally defensible result?
Our response to ISIS and their provocations must be careful, creative, and smart. Dropping bombs and firing off cruise missiles will undoubtedly be a part of it, but it can’t be all of it. Obviously we must wield a military response and destroy their networks as much as possible. But a truly creative response would be one that would seek not only to defeat extremists with violent force, but to eliminate the conditions that gave rise to ISIS in the first place, which is a complex brew of socioeconomic ills within the Middle East, the political instability of Syria and its neighbors, and yes, even climate change. And we can’t just be talking about effecting change over there. Fossil fuels have been the seed of conflict between the Middle East and the West since the early 20th century. Because of climate change, we already know we have no choice but to abandon fossil fuels eventually; a truly incisive strategy to bring down ISIS and their horrible friends would be to mobilize the U.S. and other Western economies for a rapid transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy, which would not only make us stronger, but would undoubtedly make them weaker. (Where does ISIS get their money? You guessed it: by selling oil).
This could be part of our response to ISIS. I’m totally serious.
Above all, we can’t let ISIS change who we are. They want us to think that the openness of our society, our liberty, compassion, tolerance and diversity are dangerous weaknesses, that these are things we can no longer afford in an atmosphere of hazard and conflict. They want us to respond in part by making our societies more rigid, less tolerant, less welcoming and above all less free. We can’t let them do that. ISIS have no compassion, no ability to see good in anyone, no honor and no courage. We have these things, and they may be the greatest weapons we have against this enemy.
What’s the best way to defeat ISIS? Deny them the hellish, mean-spirited, nihilistic world they so desperately want to make us live in. They think that through our anger and our fear we’ll help create it for them. Let us make sure they’re wrong.