Okay, we have to talk about Paris.
On Friday, November 13, terrorists who appear to be connected to Daesh, or ISIS, killed 129 people and wounded hundreds more in a series of attacks involving suicide bombers and, more deadly, automatic weapons and explosives aimed at crowds of people at sidewalk cafes and at the Bataclan theater.
Daesh has claimed responsibility for the carnage, even though there remain questions about how much the plan was controlled from Syria as opposed to organized locally and so how much was ideologically rather than organizationally driven.
That distinction, of course, does not matter to the dead and wounded, nor does it matter to their families and friends. Nor should it. Nor should it, except as part of some overriding political calculation, matter to any of the rest of us.
What matters is the pain and the suffering and the blood and the death. More death. More blood. More suffering. More pain.
As always happens, as is natural to happen, the first question that arises is "why?" Why did this happen? And the answer to that question, an answer thought through to get past the simplistic, is important because it can direct us toward an answer to the bigger, more important, question: what now?
But the first thing to do, the very first, even if it's only for a short time, the first thing to do is mourn. To mourn and to condemn the attackers, who, no matter how many injustices real or imagined they may cite in their defense, are still responsible for their actions and they are still cowardly murders.
And then, after, we can ask why. There are, of course, lots of official officials and expert experts already making statements and sopping up ink and air time with answers that run the gamut from "they hate us" to "they are fanatics" and back again as if such a puny range represented thoughtful thought and analytical analysis.
Instead of speculating on why they hate us or dismissing the question with some version of "haters gonna hate," how about we ask them? Writing in The Nation recently, Lydia Wilson, field director at Artis International, which she described as a consortium for scientific study in the service of conflict resolution, described her experience of questioning ISIS members who had been taken prisoner:
Many [people] assume that these fighters are motivated by a belief in the Islamic State, a caliphate ruled by a caliph. ... But this just doesn't hold for the prisoners we are interviewing. They are woefully ignorant about Islam and have difficulty answering questions about Sharia law, militant jihad, and the caliphate. ...In other words, it is not a commitment to any radical Islam that drives them. That's a judgment seconded by Doug Stone, a retired American general who spent over two years in Iraq during the US occupation, interviewing prisoners on a daily basis. He said that 80 percent of the prisoners he interviewed had the same profile as the ISIS prisoners Wilson saw: men in their late 20s who had come to age during the US occupation of Iraq and had the same complaint, that the US invaded, threw out Saddam, and it lead to civil war, leaving them, as Sunnis, oppressed and abandoned.
There is no question that these prisoners I am interviewing are committed to Islam; it is just their own brand of Islam, only distantly related to that of the Islamic State. Similarly, Western fighters traveling to the Islamic State are also deeply committed, but it’s to their own idea of jihad rather than one based on sound theological arguments or even evidence from the Qur'an.
These men now are not driven by the idea of an Islamic caliphate; rather, ISIS is now the one group that offers them a way to defend - or at least a way to feel they are defending - their dignity, their family, their tribe.
How may times have I said it? ISIS, Daesh, grew out of disaffected Sunnis who felt abandoned and then betrayed by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, a government that existed due to the United States. Maybe it's a step too far to say we created Daesh, but it's not too far to say we created the conditions in which it could take root and flourish.
And that points to the answer to the question "what now?" And the first, the most important, answer is what not to do: not to engage in what one writer pointedly called "the weaponization of grief," the turning of this crime into an excuse for other, additional, even greater crimes.
It won't work - that is, unless your goal is to, to slightly misquote Mark Twain, "drown the thunder of the bombs with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain," unless your goal is more senseless killing, more blood, more anger, more fury, more militants ready to die, ready to commit havoc on the innocent, ready for terror.
That new anger is already being generated by another event, just one day before the attacks in Paris: A pair of suicide bombers, who appear to have been sent by ISIS, blew themselves up in separate attacks in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. Forty-three people were killed, nearly 250 more wounded.
To the almost complete silence of the West. No Lebanese flags were flown, no cries of "We are all Lebanese now" streamed across social media, no buildings were lit in the red, white, and green of the Lebanese flag. Oh, it was reported, surely enough: For example, the New York Times carried one story. On page 6.
In response to the Paris attacks, the Times ran six stories the first day, three of them on the front page, two of them above the fold. There were 20 follow-up stories the next day, four of them on the front page. The day after that, there were 15 more follow-ups, again four of them on page 1. Forty-one stories in three days, 11 of them on the front page. One story on page 6 for Beirut.
Perhaps even more telling was the fact that in covering the terrorism in Paris, the Times headline was "Paris Terrorist Attacks Kill over 100." In covering the terrorism in Beirut, the single story on page 6 was initially headlined "Deadly Blasts Hit Hezbollah Area in Southern Beirut," later changed to "Hezbollah Stronghold." Hezbollah, as I expect you know, is regarded by the west as a terrorist group. Reuters, NPR, and MSNBC all joined in shouting "Hezbollah." This was despite the fact that the New York Times article itself says the neighborhood "typifies working-class Beirut, where Palestinians, Christians and Syrian refugees (mostly Sunnis) live, work and shop" and later calls it a "bustling area with narrow streets, many small shops and vendors selling fruits and vegetables from stalls and pushcarts."
Even Daesh, in claiming responsibility for the attacks, said the target was Shiite Muslims, who it views as apostates, and mentioned Hezbollah almost as an afterthought.
But no matter. Somehow, in the eyes of major western media, the presence of a Hezbollah office in the area made all those civilians disappear into a terrorist "stronghold." They became "other." Well, then, no wonder we couldn't be bothered to mourn them. Or even remember them, once someplace we think of as "us" was attacked.
Do you think people in the Middle East don't see that? You think they don't see that difference? You think they don't see that difference as demonstrating the West's indifference to what they live every day? You think that doesn't fuel anger, rage, fury?
How long can we keep making the same stupid mistakes? How long can we keep charging down the same blind alleys? How long can we tell ourselves that - Democrats' version - a little more bombing or - GOPpers' version - a lot more troops will do what bombing is failing to do in Syria, what 140,000 troops failed to do in Iraq, what 100,000 troops failed to do in Afghanistan?
We've got to find another way. We've got to take another way. It has been said, quite truthfully, that those who deal in vengeance tend to become that which they oppose. So we have got to stop imagining that vengeance, that "get them back" is the answer or even an answer. We have got to find the courage to say we will not be terrorized, we will not be afraid, we will not be intimidated, but we will not become what we oppose. We will not become, or, if I'm to be completely honest here, we will stop being, terrorists.
No, that won't be easy and no, it won't be safe. But the hard truth is that while you can kill terrorists, you can't kill terrorism, as the recent history of the Taliban to al-Qaeda to Daesh should have taught us but has yet to do so. Terrorism can't be killed and ultimately it can't be bombed or invaded into submission except at most temporarily. It can only be overcome by being dried up, desiccated to the point of, like Voldemort in the movie version, turning to dust and blowing away - and that requires not attacks but aid, not ultimatums but understanding, not bombs but bread; it requires, bottom line, justice. It requires acting with justice - and not the kind of "justice" that is just a code word for vengeance, for "get them back," for tit for tat, but true justice. It requires acting justly, even when it's not convenient, even when it's inconvenient.
The dead everywhere deserve no less of an honor.
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