Last week’s terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris left 172 people dead, hundreds more injured, and the world reeling in grief and recoiling in horror. The carnage in Beirut drew little Western media attention or sympathy – indeed, the New York Times impugned the innocence of the civilian victims by describing the target as a “Hezbollah stronghold” – proving once again that for Americans and Europeans white lives matter, others not so much. Meanwhile, the Paris attacks have set in motion an all-too-familiar set of responses from government officials, fear-mongering politicians, and opportunists in what media critic Jim Naureckas has aptly described as “the weaponization of grief.”
Terrorism is once again being conflated with Islam: In the U.S. there are calls to shut down mosques, increased threats and violence against Muslims, and vows by a majority of U.S. governors to refuse to take Syrian refugees. That the refugees are fleeing the same violence that has now briefly been visited upon a Western capital is totally lost on people who cannot see beyond their prejudice to actual people suffering and desperate to escape slaughter.
France, meanwhile, has already made good on its pledge to retaliate “pitilessly” by bombing the city of Raqqa, with assistance from the U.S., and has implemented a state of emergency. French Muslims say the backlash against them “started right away.”
We have been down this road before, and we already know that military responses, restrictions of democratic rights, and hostility and discrimination against Muslims do not stop terrorism. Rather, they provide the perfect breeding ground for terrorism. Indeed, the bitterest of ironies is that the Paris and Beirut attacks by ISIS are, in some respects, the fruit of the U.S.’s response to 9/11, including the disastrous Iraq war.
I have written about this before. On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I reflected on how the U.S. militaristic response to the attacks did more to erode our core democratic principles than it did to keep us safe. The most painful political truth, I observed, about the decade (now decade and a half) following 9/11 is that it represents a severe undoing of our democracy such that the values which defined us before that date may never be regained.
Everything about the aftermath of 9/11 counsels us to avoid seeking vengeance through wanton military responses abroad and militarized policies at home. Our experience has shown that sending troops, drones, and missiles to wage war on terrorist groups in the end only strengthens the resolve of those groups at the same time that it weakens the resolve domestically to be at war with the world. It is a strategy that simply cannot be successful.
Military responses are incompatible with the values of democracy. Sending troops means bringing home body bags. Dropping bombs means killing civilians, and ultimately far more civilians than military targets. Waging war means creating desperate refugee populations with no safe place to go.
Domestically the very construction of the concept of “terrorism” is one that is easily manipulated by the government to enhance and abuse its power. The U.S. “War on Terror” has led to a host of secret government actions, mass surveillance, targeted surveillance of Muslim communities and progressive groups, immigration abuses, and let’s not forget indefinite detention without charge or trial and the systemic use of torture. Along with these, it has also led to the jailing and teargassing of protesters, and cracking down on people who disagree with any or all of the above actions as well as journalists that try to expose them.
“The biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted,” Paul Krugman wrote on Monday, “but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire.” The world we live in today is a testament to the truth of this statement, as are the current actions of the French and U.S. governments.