I was riveted this weekend by the images from Paris, of the terrorist attacks that rocked that great city. I can only join many other voices expressing that volatile and contradictory range of emotions such attacks provoke: helplessness and resolve, heartbreak and outrage, hope and hopelessness.
I was particularly taken with the various responses from those oh-so-unofficial American spokespeople, late night talk show hosts. John Oliver responded with vilely appropriate profanity. (A**holes, he kept calling ISIS, which echoes the recent tendency, by President Obama and others, to call ISIS by the organization’s Arabic initials, Daesh, which, apparently, sounds a lot like an Arabic insult; ‘he who causes discord.’ ‘A**holes,’ in other words).
Jimmy Fallon invoked the power of love, and Stephen Colbert (who only heard of the attacks near the end of his Friday show), was appropriately and movingly awkward and inarticulate. Trevor Noah focused instead on the remarkable humanity of the people of Paris, who queued up to give blood, and opened their doors to stranded strangers. My favorite response, though, was Larry Wilmore’s: he expressed solidarity with the people of France, then said this:
And on a personal note, my daughter was born on July 14, Bastille day, and she’s been a Francophile ever since. And I promised her when she was a girl that for her eighteenth birthday, I would take her to Paris. Now, that birthday is in eight months. Do what you will, terrorists, but you can go to hell, because that trip is still happening.
The question that’s been consuming me is this: ‘what do we do now?’ Obviously, one answer to that question is Wilmore’s; we continue with our lives. We recreate, we go to cafes and movie theaters, we ‘go to Paris.’ Terrorism is a tactic, first and foremost, intended to intimidate. We defeat terror by refusing to become terrorized.
But the emotions an attack like this one provokes are direct, raw, and visceral. We respond with fear and with anger. Understandable. And there’s a certain immediate satisfaction to the moral clarity of straightforward calls for revenge. There are certain things we expect our leaders to say, such as French President Hollande, declaring that France would be ‘ruthless’ in response. “Oh, yeah!” we might respond. “Take ’em out. End them.” And we could do it. The United States is the greatest military power the world has ever seen. Put together a coalition, with French forces and NATO forces and (please heaven) some Sunni Moslems, and let’s put ISIS down. We could do it.
And then what?
Which is why I was so grateful to Colbert for adding, on his silly celebrity talk show, another perspective; that of Col. Jack Jacobs, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner and expert in the region. I thought this exchange, between a comedian and a genuine military expert, was illuminating:
COLBERT: What has happened so far in response to the attacks in Paris.
JACOBS: Actually, not a lot. A few more air strikes. Everyone has decided that something has to be done, but at the end of the day, really nothing significant will be done, because it’s not possible to knock these guys out unless we’re willing to commit a large number of troops.
COLBERT: How many troops?
JACOBS: Several hundreds of thousands, and for a long time. It’ll take a decade, two decades. It’s time-sensitive. We’re not going to do it, and we can’t get the people in the region to do it, even though they have an interest in making sure these guys. . . .
COLBERT: Why can’t. . . I mean, if it’s several hundred thousand people, obviously it seems like a coalition would be the answer, not one country, because so many countries have an interest, and so many countries have been attacked by ISIS at this point. Why don’t the regional powers there want to do anything about it, why not Saudi Arabia, why not Iran?
JACOBS: They’re at each other’s throats. Saudi Arabia and Iran are duking it out for domination and influence in the area, so they’re not going to coalesce. As a matter of fact, if you throw Turkey into the mix, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran, they all have pretty powerful armed forces, very very good air forces . . . so right now, who’s bombing Raqa? The United States and France. There’s an argument that says that we ought to just shut up about trying to unseat bloodthirsty despots, because in the past they’ve kept the place together.
COLBERT: Would ISIS exist if Saddam Hussein was still in power?
JACOBS: I think not. I think it’s an outgrowth of that. These are Sunni apocalyptic people who are waiting for, not waiting for the end of the world, they are hurtling toward it, and want to bring everybody with them.
COLBERT: So if you had control of our armed forces, what should the United States do right now to try to destroy ISIS, because part of this is that they have nothing to negotiate, they’re not looking for anything from us.
JACOBS: No, no. Everything’s non-negotiable, they want you to die and they want to die themselves.
COLBERT: So how do we give that to them?
JACOBS: Well, we can do it. There are a couple of things to consider here. We’re not going to be able to do it by dropping conventional bombs on people. Militarily, the only purpose for bombs, is to pave the way for people on the ground to seize and hold terrain, long enough to create an environment to create a real government to take out the trash and . . . we’re not doing it, and it takes a quarter of a million people to do it, probably just in Syria,
COLBERT: Any good news, Colonel?
JACOBS: Well, I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.
What I love about this exchange is its recognition of the political and logistic complexities of the region, and how ISIS (sorry, Daesh) is able to flourish precisely because of the political vacuum created by previous well-meaning attempts to de-complexify things. Could the Iraqi army clean things up? The Iraqi army is 95% Shi’a. Eastern Iraq is largely Sunni. The people of that region are far more likely to see Iraqis as oppressive than as liberators. Syria is in the middle of a civil war, and Russia supports a different side in that civil war than the US does. The Kurds are able to provide an effective fighting force, when they’re not being bombed by Turkey. Is the answer a regional coalition? Between Shi’a Iraq, Shi’a Iran, Sunni Turkey, Sunni Saudi Arabia? And independence-seeking Kurds? How likely does that seem?
Meanwhile, Libya is a basket case, with four regions each dominated by a different warlord. One of them, ISIS. Poor Lebanon is overrun with refugees, who they are heroically trying to provide for, with inadequate UN help.
And in the US, a bunch of Republican governors have said they won’t allow Syrian refugees into their states. Nosireebob. Because, who knows, some of them might be terrorists. I’m embarrassed to admit that Mike Pence, governor of Indiana (where I grew up), is among them. I’m proud to say that Gary Herbert, governor of Utah, is not.
We cannot, cannot, allow that kind of unreasoning fear to govern our responses to the Paris attacks, or similar attacks in Kenya, or in Lebanon. Fear and anger are insufficiently complex emotions to deal with the complexities of the current situation. We cannot give in to them, tempting though they are. Simple-minded solutions lead to the ultimate simple-mindedness; the fanaticism of suicide bombings and beheadings and vicious extremism.
We also cannot give in to Islamophobia. ISIS/Daesh is supported by only the tiniest percentage of Moslems. That’s why President Obama insists so strongly on avoiding the phrase ‘Islamic extremists.’ We can’t conflate this tiny group of violent nihilists with mainstream Islam, or allow a terror tactic to define a great world religion. And let’s remember: the Syrian refugees are fleeing violence, not seeking to establish terror strongholds in the West. We should invite ten times as many Syrians to settle in the US. Doing so would greatly bless our nation.
Let’s be smart about all this. Let’s embrace its complexities. Let’s reason together, with whoever we have the ability to reason with, and let’s remember our common humanity. Let’s remember the great ideals of liberte, egalite, fraternite, even while remembering the time when those great words were twisted and warped by murderous Jacobin terrorists in the French past. Even terrorists, are, after all, our brothers and sisters, though desperately misguided ones. Open, direct warfare will accomplish nothing.
What will work? I don’t have the faintest idea. And neither does anyone else. And that’s okay.