Three Thoughts on the Paris Attacks and Their Aftermath

17 Nov

On Mourning

I think it’s fair to say the Paris Attacks have initiated an unprecedented wave of public displays of grief on my Facebook and Twitter networks. While many have gone out of their way to express their solidarity with those killed in Paris, others have made sure to express their sympathy for victims of the Sinai plane crash and the Beirut bombing. Yet others have lashed out at those mourning these attacks for caring disproportionately about Western victims (with some posting the BBC article about the April Garissa attack that left 147 dead), and otherwise ignoring violence perpetrated in the non-Western world, sometimes by Western forces.

There is merit in each of these arguments, but they all neglect a basic principle of following mass violence: people are killed by political violence all over the world all the time, and it is impossible to mourn for each and every victim. Attempting to do so would be extremely emotionally destructive. Mourning, therefore, is a personal act, and we should be wary of mourning when it becomes competitive. For many people I know, the Paris Attacks feel closer to home. And that’s not a surprise. Few people I know are more likely to find themselves in northern Kenya or Beirut than Paris.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t think about what violence prompts Western attention and what slips under the radar. We can both mourn Paris and think critically about how political violence overwhelmingly affects non-Western victims. Because we have a finite ability to mourn, I think there’s more value in attempting to learn about what’s happening in Beirut or northern Kenya than publicly acknowledging an incident of violence happened there.

On Terrorism

It can be difficult in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack to put things in perspective. Terrorism inspires fear that opens up opportunities for extremists of all stripes and shifts the conversation to a zero-sum conception of security. It is important to recognize this phenomenon and push back. A few facts can help. The world, in the long-term, is becoming a safer place . Terrorism, including ISIS, does not pose an existential threat to any Western country. Very, very few Americans have died of terrorism since 9/11. And these trends are very likely to continue.

The biggest danger to human life comes not from terrorists attacking Western targets, but from Western leaders reacting to terrorism. Terrorists themselves have a very limited ability to conduct attacks and recruit followers. For that they must rely on Western leaders, who can be counted on to react forcefully, killing thousands of civilians in the process, and creating an atmosphere in which terrorists can claim to defend a broader community. Transnational terrorist groups cannot achieve the goals of their disciples in the long-term, but can survive, perhaps indefinitely, on the policies of leaders that are “tough on terrorism”. And yet, the proposed policies of most Republican presidential candidates would heap legitimacy on ISIS’ stated mission.

Finally, there can be a bit of dissonance between normatively condemning terrorism and seeking to understand the forces that make it possible. However, it is important to recognize that immoral acts are not beyond the realm of comprehension.  We can mourn and condemn the attacks while simultaneously recognizing the ways in which the social and economic exclusion of Muslims in Europe contributes to terrorism.

On Refugees

In the last few days, I have been ashamed to be an American and a Michigander. There are few things worse than turning away those in desperate need.

However, moral claims alone won’t convince those who truly believe admitting Syrian refugees endangers Americans. There are two good, purely strategic arguments, that I think can be effective here. First, Syrian refugees are trying to escape the very violence that ISIS (and Assad) perpetrates. ISIS implores all Muslims to come to the Caliphate and participate in its violent expansion, but in their flight, refugees have rejected this call. Second, maltreating refugees aids ISIS, which relies on a narrative that ISIS defends Muslims against a violently Islamophobic West. The more that refugees are shunned and rejected, the more young Muslims will find ISIS’ message attractive. Even in terms of pure American security, admitting refugees is the more prudent option.

I think these two arguments are good for engaging with those that hold anti-refugee views in the here and now. Nonetheless, I think there is a danger in relying solely on a zero-sum security narrative that in fact distorts the causes of violence. Many people on Facebook have been sharing a photo that indicates not one refugee has been brought up on domestic terrorism charges. But what if that ceases to be true? What if the FBI, as it so often does, entraps an impressionable teenager? I think progressives need to also articulate a moral pro-refugee argument that presents accepting refugees as simply the right thing to do, the American thing to do. The scale of the world refugee crisis is so large that arguments that can hope to drastically change the socially acceptable range of beliefs are desperately needed. Without them, Western countries will continue to debate whether to accept no refugees or a few thousand every year, while tiny Lebanon hosts 1.1 million.


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