The Long War on Terror

Bullet holes and flowers at Le Carillon, a bar in Paris where 12 people were killed in November 2015. Credit Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos
Bullet holes and flowers at Le Carillon, a bar in Paris where 12 people were killed in November 2015. Credit Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

In the wake of the mass casualty attacks in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Orlando, Fla., and Nice, France — as well as numerous smaller ones by so-called lone wolves — it is simply a fact that no public space anywhere in the world can be considered safe. To the contrary, the tempo of these attacks is rising. President Obama may have been right when he said in February 2015 that terrorism did not pose an “existential threat to the United States or the world order.” But this is cold comfort. People are afraid, and they have every reason to be. At the same time, this legitimate fear seems to be poisoning our politics both in the United States and in Europe, feeding the demagogues and shaking our institutions.

What can be done in response? To answer that question, it is first necessary to face what can’t. Not all these attacks can be stopped. It is one thing to increase security at ports and airports — and even there, as the attacks on airports in Brussels and Istanbul show, such measures are hardly foolproof. But there is simply no way to police every subway station, cafe and public square from Berlin to Honolulu. So the one sure thing is that these attacks will continue. Even assuming that the Islamic State can be defeated in Syria and Iraq, the group’s efforts to inspire people via the internet to carry out attacks on their own are likely to continue to resonate.

This is not something to which people are going to simply resign themselves. To the contrary, every attack makes the demagogues’ arguments seem more credible. It seems only a matter of time before one of the extreme right-wing populist parties in Western Europe comes to power. (Arguably, one already has in Hungary.) To be sure, the danger of terrorism is not the only thing that has fueled their rise. But whether terrorism does or doesn’t represent an existential threat, it has engendered a level of existential dread that, mixed with the dislocations of mass migration in Europe and the discrediting of the political elite throughout the developed world, cannot be wished away.

One does not have to be a populist to see that the elites have much to answer for. When the crowd at a commemoration of the 84 victims of the Nice attack booed the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, it was not just because the French government’s response to the terrorist threat has been inadequate. Behind that may have been the sense that across Europe, the political elite has ignored the festering social environment in which a large cohort of badly educated, despairing and often violence-prone young people born of immigrant parents came to adulthood. The alienation that makes a small minority of these young people ideal candidates to serve as cannon fodder for the Islamic State is obvious to anyone who spends any time in the suburbs of Paris, Brussels, Berlin or London.

The stark truth is that the Western political elite remains in denial, and not just about terrorism but about the anger and frustration over the effects of globalization, which have nourished xenophobia in most if not all rich countries. Until elites fully acknowledge these problems, the rise of the demagogues is all but assured. If the only choice people have is between a political elite that denies or dismisses the legitimacy of their fears and politicians who, whatever their motives, tell them they’re not wrong to harbor them, more people will join the parties of fear.

Many would argue that, far from being in denial about terrorism, the Western elite harps on it too much. But this is not the way most people perceive their governments. In France, for example, the state of emergency, proclaimed after the November 2015 attacks in Paris, was less than two weeks away from expiration when the Nice attack took place. This vacillation discredits governments — and the French are hardly alone in this — in the eyes of their electorates and seems to make a mockery of rhetorical commitments to quash terrorism. Public fear and anger have now reached the point that unless the European and American political elites want to cede the field to the populists and xenophobes, they are going to have to take drastic steps.

One option is simply to say that for the foreseeable future terrorism is here to stay and that, as Mr. Valls said recently, “Times have changed, and we should learn to live with terrorism.” There is probably some truth to this, but in effect telling people there is little that can be done is simply not something Western electorates are prepared to hear. And in practice, learning to live with something surely means growing accustomed to it. As the rise of the radical right in Europe and of Donald J. Trump in the United States shows, resignation remains too bitter a pill for many people to swallow.

The stark truth is that the number and lethality of terrorist attacks are far likelier to rise than to diminish for the foreseeable future. But there is a duty to try to stop them. In that, the West faces a choice: either the walls Mr. Trump wants to build and the mass deportations that many right-wing European politicians have begun calling for, or a vast expansion of the national security apparatus. That would require serious increases both in budgets and personnel and in the methods at their disposal.

For what the attacks at the Brussels airport, at the gay club in Orlando and at the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice demonstrate is that the measures taken to date, however far-reaching (some would say dangerous) in terms of civil liberties they seem, are not working. At present, we have the worst of both worlds, a secretive and worryingly unaccountable intelligence establishment that at the same time simply does not have the manpower or the technical capacity needed to keep close tabs on the thousands — if not tens of thousands — of terrorist sympathizers in Europe and in North America who have been radicalized through social media.

This prospect is awful but is there an alternative? The war on terror is a strange, asymmetrical war, but it is a war just the same. In any war — including a just war — we lose a certain amount of our humanity. At a minimum, we have to control the worst excesses. By way of historical analogy, it is to avoid firebombing Dresden in the name of defeating Nazism.

In the case of the war against the Islamic State’s foot soldiers in Europe and America, this means the maintaining of civilian control over and close monitoring of the security services, the unswerving prohibition on torture (which risks coming back on the agenda with a vengeance) and a rejection of the war of civilizations argument so beloved by both the populist right and by the jihadists.

But absent some miraculous end to terrorism, in fighting it we are going to compromise some of our values. The best we can hope for is to hold on to enough of our humanity to have a chance of clawing back the rest when the war ends, as all wars do.

David Rieff is the author, most recently, of In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies.

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