The Paris attack is a tragedy – it is not a call to arms. Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, we observed,
In the fall and winter that followed Sept 11, 2001, about 30,000 Americans died of the flu – ten times the number that died on 9/11. We should be thankful that in the greater scheme of things, even the worst terrorist attack in history doesnt amount to a whole lot. The US reaction to 9/11, particularly its ill-considered invasion of Iraq, has had far more terrible and enduring consequences. We should bury our dead and mourn, but we should not let our hunger for justice or security erode our most precious liberal institutions and values.
Nothing has changed. In a free society, bad people can more easily do bad things. When they do, our biggest mistake is to make our society less free. As Paul Krugman put it, “the biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted, but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire.”
French President Francois Hollande has asked to extend the state-of-emergency for an additional three months, expanding the power of the police – a far less dire assault on liberty than was the Patriot Act. But one New York Times editorial writer now argues for a full-scale invasion of Syria and Iraq – seemingly incognizant of the fact that the rise of ISIS is the direct consequence of the last US invasion. According to Roger Cohen,
To defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq will require NATO forces on the ground. After the protracted and inconclusive Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is reasonable to ask if this would not be folly. It is also reasonable to demand – and many will – whether military action will only have the effect of winning more recruits for ISIS as more lives and treasure are squandered. Terrorism, the old nostrum has it, can never be completely defeated. Such arguments are seductive but must be resisted…. Crushing ISIS in Syria and Iraq will not eliminate the jihadi terrorist threat. But the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.
“Inconclusive” is a charitable term to describe the outcome of the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Utter and abject failure” better conveys the reality that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan exist any longer, and that Iraq is now a training ground for international terrorism – something it never was before the US occupation.
As for “the good” that might come of invading Iraq (again) and Syria, we might learn from the example of Israel, which, despite its half-century long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, failed to curb terrorism through military force. The British military similarly failed in Northern Ireland. This is because terror networks, like ISIS, Hamas and the IRA, are primarily political organizations. They lack proper armies that can be met on the field and destroyed. Their personnel can seamlessly disappear into villages and towns in the face of an invasion, and can persist in the shadows for decades. The power of such organizations lies mainly in their ability to attract new adherents. And while movements come into and go out of fashion, their half life is often measured not in years but in decades.
The Paris attack was ideally calculated to produce fear and anxiety in the people of the city – targeting its best loved playground. The Canal-St-Martin neighborhood is a weekend destination for almost everyone, with hip bars and cafes, inventive restaurants, and a street-life that’s impressive even by Parisian standards. No one who has lived in Paris can fail to appreciate how easily they might have been one of the victims.
Though it’s far easier to type than to actually live by this advice – our best response is to mourn for those we lost; to trust in time to heal our psychological wounds; and above all: to carry on.
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Editor’s note: The Liberal Field Guide is off next week for Thanksgiving.