The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody has decided not to see,” wrote Ayn Rand in her novel The Fountainhead. That there is a link, a connection, between the west’s military interventions in the Middle East and terrorist attacks against the west, that violence begets violence, is “glaringly evident” to anyone with open eyes, if not open minds.
Yet over the past 14 years, too many of us have “decided not to see”. From New York to Madrid to London, any public utterance of the words “foreign” and “policy” in the aftermath of a terrorist attack has evoked paroxysms of outrage from politicians and pundits alike.
The response to the atrocities in Paris has followed the same pattern. Derided by a former Labour minister as “west-hating fury chimps”, the UK’s Stop the War coalition removed from its website a piece that blamed the rise of Islamic State (Isis) and the Paris attacks on “deliberate policies and actions undertaken by the United States and its allies”. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, scrapped a speech in which he was due to say that Britain’s “disastrous wars” have “increased, not diminished, the threats to our own national security”. Such arguments are verboten in our public discourse.
Isn’t it odd, then, that in the case of Russia, western governments have been keen to link Vladimir Putin’s – and only Vladimir Putin’s – foreign policy to terrorist violence? On 1 October the US government and its allies issued a joint statement declaring that the Russian president’s decision to intervene in Syria would “only fuel more extremism and radicalisation”. Yes, you heard them: it’ll “fuel” it.
Moscow’s bombing campaign will “lead to further radicalisation and increased terrorism”, claimed David Cameron on 4 October. Note the words “lead to”. Speaking at a Nato summit on 8 October the US defence secretary, Ashton Carter, warned of the “consequences for Russia itself, which is rightly fearful of attacks”. Got that? “Rightly fearful”.
And, in the days since the crash of the Russian Metrojet airliner in Egypt on 31 October, which killed 224 civilians, commentators have queued up to join the dots between Russia’s actions in Syria and this alleged terrorist attack by Isis. On a BBC panel discussion the Telegraph’s Janet Daley referred to the crash as “a direct consequence of [Russia’s] involvement in Syria”, adding: “[Putin] has perhaps incited this terrorist incident on Russian civilians.”
Compare and contrast Daley’s remarks on the downing of Flight 9268 with her reaction to the Paris attacks. Rather than accusing President Hollande of “inciting” terrorism against the people of France, or calling the carnage a “direct consequence” of French involvement in Syria, she took aim at anyone who might dare draw attention to the country’s military interventions in Muslim-majority countries such as Libya, Mali and, yes, Syria.
“If there is any need to argue about these matters, it should come at some other time,” she wrote, because “the French people did not deserve this”, and “it is wicked and irresponsible to suggest otherwise”. (To quote one of the leading foreign policy sages of our time, Phoebe Buffay of Friends: “Hello, kettle? This is pot. You’re black.”)
If Isis did bring down the Russian airliner, then of course it would be madness to pretend it wasn’t linked to Putin’s military campaign on behalf of the dictator of Damascus. Yet it would be equally insane to pretend that the horror in Paris had nothing at all to do with France’s recent military interventions in the Middle East and west Africa.
Yes, the attackers in the Bataclan concert hall chanted Allahu Akbar as they opened fire on the crowd, but they were also heard saying: “What you are doing in Syria? You are going to pay for it now.” Yes, Isis’s official statement of responsibility referred to Paris as “the capital of prostitution and obscenity”, but it also singled out the French government for leading a “Crusader campaign” and “striking the Muslims … with their planes”.
To understand political violence requires an understanding of political grievances; to blame terrorism only on religious ideology or medieval mindsets is short-sighted and self-serving. The inconvenient truth is that geopolitics is governed as much as is physics by Newton’s third law of motion: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The CIA, back in the 1950s, even coined a term – “blowback” – to describe the unintended negative consequences, for US civilians, of US military operations abroad.
Today, when it comes to Russia, an “official enemy”, we understand and embrace the concept of blowback. When it comes to our own countries, to the west, we become the child in the playground, sticking our fingers in our ears and singing “La la la, I can’t hear you.”
You can argue that French – or for that matter UK or US – military action in the Middle East is a legitimate and unavoidable response to the rise of a terrorist mini-state; but you can’t argue that actions don’t have consequences.
The former chief of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit, Michael Scheuer, told me in 2011 that “people are going to ... bomb us because they don’t like what we’ve done”. In an interview for al-Jazeera in July, the retired US general Michael Flynn, who ran the Defense Intelligence Agency from 201315, admitted to me that “the more bombs we drop, that just … fuels the conflict”.
It is a view backed by the Pentagon’s Defence Science Board, which observed as long as ago as 1997: “Historical data show a strong correlation between US involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States.”
Let me be clear: to explain is not to excuse; explication is not justification. There is no grievance on earth that can justify the wanton slaughter of innocent men, women and children, in France or anywhere else.
The savagery of Isis is perhaps without parallel in the modern era. But the point is that it did not emerge from nowhere: as the US president himself has conceded, Isis “grew out of our invasion” of Iraq.
Yet we avert our gaze from the “glaringly evident” and pretend that “they” – the Russians, the Iranians, the Chinese – are attacked for their policies while “we” – Europe, the west, the liberal democracies – are attacked only for our principles. This is the simplistic fantasy, the geopolitical fairytale, that we tell ourselves. It gives us solace and strength in the wake of terrorist atrocities. But it does nothing to stop the next attack.
Mehdi Hasan is the presenter of Al-Jazeera English's Head to Head. He was a senior editor at the New Statesman and a news and current affairs editor at Channel 4. He is co-author of Ed: the Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader.