According to various different news reports, over 120 Parisians have been killed by a string of terrorist attacks. The terrorists traveled throughout Europe, came to France, detonated a few bombs, and used AK-47s to produce mayhem in night clubs, a stadium and the streets of Paris. Leaders all over the western world are issuing statements of solidarity with France. ISIS has indicated their responsibility for these attacks, and the various western governments have vowed to step up their attacks against terrorists, who “oppose our way of life”.
Very understandably, besides the mourning among the families of those killed, and the shock of a whole nation, there are already political preparations to respond to these heinous attacks. What can be done? What should be done?
The immediate knee-jerk reaction would be to desire to send ground troops into Iraq and Syria. The US already has 50 special forces stationed in Syria. France has stepped up aerial raids in Syria since the end of September. Should there be even more involvement. One thing that is clear is that if president Hollande stepped forward with a plan to destroy ISIS with boots on the ground, he would get the overwhelming public support, which is reminiscent to Bush’s war on terrorism campaign following 9/11. We know that both invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan were quagmires, which hurt US international reputation, and has not made the security situation in the Middle East much better. In fact, the US certainly made it worse by creating more political instability than existed before their intervention.
One difference, though, is that France is not the US, and does not have the same military capacity to wage long-winded wars. When the French tried to keep their beloved Indochina colony after the end of World War II, they were badly defeated by the Vietcong, despite heavy US military and financial support. When the Algerians declared independence from France, they were again routed out despite their brutal massacre. Lastly, when the French and the British were carrying out their no-fly zone in Libya, they would have accomplished nothing without US logistical support to sustain these air raids.
If we read the statements of the British and US governments closely, there are indications that if the French were to pursue a boots on the ground strategy in Syria, that they would back up their French allies. The US would be pulled into another long-winded and bloody conflict, which comes at tremendous cost to them. This is precisely the calculation that I am very afraid will be played out.
I have no doubt that ISIS is a major security threat to western countries, which needs to be contained. But it is not practicable to support another ground invasion with insecure political and military outcomes. The reason for terrorist support is the lack of functioning political institutions in the Middle East, which produce significant support for terrorist activity. The other problem are the so-called homegrown terrorists, which carry western passports, but have been sufficiently brainwashed by terrorists, who tell them that their life is meaningful if they enter the jihad.
But the solution can not be to increase bombing campaigns in the Middle East, which thwart further advances in building political institutions that are stable, and provide the people in the Middle East with a more hopeful perspective. The answer can also not be to increase police surveillance and re-establish the borders, so that ordinary and innocent people are eventually victimized by an over-eager police state. Unfortunately, in an atmosphere, where financial and economic austerity is the only acceptable political decision, we are also not doing anything to give the marginalized populations any hope, such that they can’t be so easily convinced to join terrorist organizations. Loic Wacquant (2001) had pointed out that the penal state, where many people are put in jail and criminalized, is intimately connected with the state’s desire to manage social insecurity in a neoliberal political economy.
It is the logic of despair, and the politics of despair, which dominate our current discourse surrounding security and terrorism, and allow our leaders to make potentially stupid choices. Ironically, of all organizations that seek to profit from insecurity, it is Facebook, which just rolled out the “mark-safe” feature, where people can mark themselves and others safe if they happen to be in Paris or wherever terrorist attacks happen. We are showing our gratefulness to the multibillion dollar corporation, which is absorbing (and controlling) so much of our waking time- and surely increase our loyalty to it because of these nice extra features; and yet, at the same time, we are reminded that conflicts are business opportunities for some that cannot be wasted.
So what should we do? In the absence of an international agreement of the major powers, there is a real likelihood that this conflict will not be settled in the immediate future. Russia and the US cannot be working at crossroads here, but need to work together to make it difficult for ISIS to gain more ground. The Arab states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE) need to be more involved in fighting ISIS. Let us hope that these heinous terrorist attacks remain the exception in western countries. They are, unfortunately, quite a regular sight in the Middle East.