The civilized nations of the world, most especially those who are industrialized, were shocked at the brazen and murderous attacks in Paris last week. And, to be sure, they were horrible, both in terms of the devastation they created, but even more significantly, because of the extreme vulnerability they exposed within the most ordinary of public gathering places.
The headlines and news coverage of the attacks give rise to the obvious question: Just how unsafe are we? And the answer may be far more unsafe than we have previously thought conceivable.
Now, to be sure, no one can be other than appalled at the assault on human decency that the terrorist attacks in Paris represent. But they are more a threat to the natural order of civilized life than they are to the lives of a significant number of individuals. Even if the actual number of casualties currently being reported should double, less than a thousand people will have been killed or injured. That many will die in random homicides in the United States this month.
So we don’t so much mourn the number of those affected (recall that even the 9/11 attacks killed less than three thousand) as we do the loss of that sense of safety in our normal lives.
But in this regard, we may well be just a tad solipsistic. Consider for example, that in many otherwise civilized communities in Mexico, gang warfare between drug cartels puts ordinary citizens at risk of such violence every day. Similarly, in much of the Middle East, most especially in large parts of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, normal life includes the very real possibility that a loved one will be killed by warring factions or that a town will be destroyed by an invading horde of freedom fighters or Islamists (or, perhaps, by an errant cruise missile). For decades, Israelis have lived with the reality of random terrorist attacks (car bombs and the like) and Palestinians have suffered the indignities of apartheid as a result. And in many parts of Africa, tribal wars still put the lives of many in constant peril. And those are just a few of the world’s less than ideal places to call home.
But for the United States, Canada and most of Europe these very real threats and less than ideal living conditions are, well, foreign. They aren’t what we’re used to and they aren’t deemed acceptable.
And so we declare “war” on the terrorists, as if that declaration will somehow immobilize the relatively small cadre of ideologues and religious zealots who believe that in each act of terror they create they are carrying out God’s will. Francois Hollande, France’s president, became the latest national leader to make that statement (“We are at war”) last weekend, and he then ordered an air assault on a town in Syria believed to be an ISIS stronghold.
Hollande’s bombs will undoubtedly kill some masterminds of terrorist attacks, but they won’t defeat the ideology behind them. The nasty thing about terrorism is that it is the most perverse form of guerrilla warfare. It requires only a handful of “ground troops,” and, as is apparently the case in the Paris attacks, they may concoct the plan on their own, gaining, at most, tacit approval from “headquarters” before inflicting the mayhem on the populace.
So declaring war (and then acting as if we are in full-fledged battle with a foreign state) might not be the path to “victory,” not if the ideology remains virulent and the “headquarters” can reappear anywhere on a moment’s notice.
ISIS/ISIL/The Islamic State (take your pick) has been a more dramatic (and despicable) form of that ideology, but its warriors are the same kind of misguided young men who caused the Patriot’s Day massacre (two ideologically fanatic brothers) and the 9/11 attacks (20 suicidal “martyrs”). If it’s a war, it isn’t against the Third Reich or even the Viet Cong.
What the West really has to fear, and why ISIS (let’s go with that one) is a real potential threat, is not what might continue to be its current form of terrorism. Yes, the loss of any innocent life is tragic, and the loss of the sense of safety in a civilized community is beyond regrettable, but as I’ve noted, in many parts of the world, those things are part of daily existence. That they may become more prevalent in our back yard is not a pleasant thought, but neither was the idea that we’d have to pass through metal detectors at major sporting events or on entering government buildings. Yet we seem to have grown accustomed to the necessity of those losses of freedom, such as they are.
The real threat from ISIS, or from any variant of the Islamist movement, is that its disciples will one day procure or manufacture weapons of mass destruction. For if they do, it is very likely that they will believe most fervently that God has given them that weaponry to further His will, to wit: the mass extermination of the world’s infidels. In such an instance, the civilized world as we know it will be threatened with the kind of catastrophe that even climatologists with the worst fears of global warming do not deem possible.
The immediate death of millions of human beings was the great fear of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and the United States poised constantly to destroy each other if either pushed its nationalistic or ideological pursuits too far. The Cuban missile crisis was as close as we came, and, for those of us who lived through it, it was as close as we’d ever want to come.
But in that standoff, the fate of two nations and two empires that had every reason to want to survive weighed against Armageddon. The Islamist ideology has no such self-restraint, for martyrdom is part of the creed, even enhancing the joys of paradise that death would bring. And as for the rest of us, we are the infidels that God/Allah has deemed must be destroyed anyway.
And so, today’s lesson is that we need to keep things in perspective. Yes, the Paris terrorist attacks were bad enough, but what if . . . ?