All I know for sure right now is that it’s not a good day to be a Parisian.
As I write this, Paris is under siege. Currently, the confused reports from the media are putting the death toll at “over 100,” a figure that’s “sure to rise” in this organized campaign of bombings, shootings and hostage taking. That this is a terrorist attack is abundantly clear. What isn’t clear is who is behind it. The smart money says Al Qaeda, a group that we’ve been told, until today, has been made ineffective. (Editor’s note: This morning the Islamic State took credit for the attacks.)
The attack is a surprise to no one. As much as our leaders like to swagger and brag about the good job they’ve done thwarting all manner of planned attacks in the past, we know that the truth is that they have been lucky. No matter how many times you catch groups planning on blowing up cars in Times Square or launching a bloody attack on transit systems, someone is eventually bound to stay off the radar and be successful. It’s happened before in Paris, not to mention Boston, Mumbai and Spain — which is where it gets our attention and stokes our fears. When it happens in places like Baghdad, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Syria and Lebanon — which is all the time — we ignore the bloodshed and suffering because the victims probably deserve it for being poor and third world.
Nobody who matters is saying what many of us without influence have known since long before the World Trade Center came crashing down; that military action alone will not solve the problem of so-called “Islamic terrorism.” Bush, Cheney and their cronies — as well as, alas, Obama — have already proved that trying to get rid of organized terrorism with nothing but bombs, troops on the ground and drones is a never ending game of whack-a-mole. As soon as you supposedly render a group such as Al Qaeda ineffective, another even more brutal group, the Islamic State perhaps, pops up to take its place.
Why? Because there is no shortage of young men and women in the Arab world who are angry and frustrated enough to be ready and willing to strap on bombs and blow themselves to smithereens — just as there is no shortage of old men who are willing to recruit them and send them to do their bidding in their quest for money and power. There’s little difference in the motivations of stateless terrorist leaders from those of nation states.
If we are serious about ending Arab terrorism, directed against both the West and the Arab states that do our bidding, we must determine why such a large portion of the Arab population finds conditions so appalling that they are willing to commit suicide in a hope to bring about change. It’s certain that if we but scratch the surface, we’ll find that the underlying reasons have less to do with Allah and the promise of an afterlife filled with virgins, and more to do with the likes of poverty, political repression and a lack of any clear cut road to change. When times are good, gods tend to not tell their followers to strap on bombs to destroy the world around them, but instead urge them to support the status quo and continued success. When there is prosperity and freedom, gods of hate become gods of love.
I’m reasonably sure that our leaders are not willing to ask these questions, because the answers will not supply easy — or inexpensive — solutions. Real solutions are seldom, if ever, either. We’ll continue asking the easy question — who’s recruiting these young people and sending them to their doom — without ever seeking to discover what it is that’s fueling the flames of their hatred. And even if we do ask these questions, I doubt that we, collectively, have the stomach to come out of our denial and admit that the answers are intricately tied to the history that we Westerners share with the Middle East, and how that history is behind much of what we dismiss as mere religious fanaticism.
Fourteen years of military actions have not made the world a safer place. Not only is the Taliban still a problem in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda is still very much a worldwide threat and the Islamic State now controls much of Syria as well as a great portion of Iraq, the country we spent twelve years liberating.
Maybe it’s time we rethink the approach we’ve been taking.
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