Monday, November 23, 2015

Fortress Europe Getting Militarized

When I revisited Rome in 2006, I was disappointed to find that once wide open St. Peter's Square could only be accessed through metal detectors, at least during the pope's general weekly audience. I could not imagine it would become worse. But it has. The video news packages I have worked on this week about security measures in Rome, Paris, Brussels and other European cities all show the same scenes of heavily armed police and soldiers, patrolling major streets and landmarks. 

Apart from the quality of the picture and different uniforms, one could be watching footage from World War Two Europe. Officials in Brussels are shutting down schools, public transport and some businesses due to "serious and imminent" threat of terrorist attacks in more than one place.

Soldiers and police squads are combing Belgium's capital for suspects, lurking behind every corner. Officials are warning citizens to avoid crowds while promising to defeat terror. France has intensified its bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria as did Russia. Hillary Clinton said the United States must lead the fight against ISIS - "not to contain it, but defeat it." In this country as elsewhere politicians want to close the doors to Syrian migrants as a way of protecting the country from terrorist attacks.

About a year or so ago, I took an online course on terrorism offered by the University of Leiden. One of the things I remember best from that course is a plethora of facts and findings showing the disconnect between politicians and scientists regarding terrorism. For example, according to the scientifically collected data, more people have been killed in Africa, Asia and the Middle East by terrorist groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Shabab and Boko Haram than in the combined attacks in Europe and the United States since September 11, 2001. One could add that
more people in the United States are murdered each year in mass killings or "ordinary" homicides than have ever been killed by terrorists.  

Yet, as the Dutch academics pointed out, more money has been invested in the ramped up security, including new agencies in the developed countries than in those most hurt by terrorism. The Leiden scholars also pointed out that these efforts have not made the world a safer place. They suggested that the money would be better spent on financing centers to research terrorism, especially in parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Africa,  the Middle East and other regions most endangered by violent groups. But most helpful of all, the online course suggested, would be for politicians to consult with scientists on the matter. ( I am not so sure when I see how some of our politicians reject scientific findings on climate change).

From what I can tell, this is not just the view of a bunch of liberal European scholars. Rosa Brooks, law professor at Georgetown University here in Washington, wrote in an article for Foreign Policy: "If we want to reduce the long-term risk of terrorism — and reduce its ability to twist Western societies into unrecognizable caricatures of themselves — we need to stop viewing terrorism as shocking and aberrational, and instead recognize it as ongoing problem to be managed, rather than “defeated.” "

Years ago, I interviewed Mark Juergensmeyer, the author of what is now a standard textbook on the subject, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. He noted an increase of violent terrorist attacks since the 1990s and said they are committed by people who see the world as being in some sort of "cosmic war." During the Cold War, he said, the world was divided into the communist East and non-communist West, with the Third World balancing in between. But after its end, "the rise of geopolitics and of a global economic system, although in some way unites everybody, it also disrupts traditional societies and gives a sense of uncertainty to people who feel that they are not a part of the new world."

According to Juergensmeyer, those who feel disenfranchised, especially  younger people, commit acts of violence or join terrorist groups whose leaders employ religious images of the divine struggle against evil in the service of their worldly political battles. The barbaric acts that seem senseless to most of the world, are what he calls "performance violence," designed to engage the world in the war, quite unlike the kind of terrorism associated with left-wing Marxist movements that was more strategic and had a more practical goal.

According to that analogy, a world leader who declares war against terror, would appear to be falling into the terrorists' trap. Many Europeans seem to think so. A German friend e-mailed me, "It's crazy. Total overreaction - like after 9/11. I thought the Europeans wouldn't do such a thing but apparently yes. And Hollande - like Bush - is of course internally weak and unpopular and now tries to exploit it to boost his image and electoral chances. It's terrible."

Pope Francis has refused to succumb to the terrorist strategy. In his address to the faithful on Sunday he stressed that the doors to the church will not be closed under any circumstances.

Ordinary citizens also have displayed more sang-froid after the Paris attacks than their leaders. Many said they were concerned, but won't allow fear to control their lives, and a video of a Parisian father telling his son "they might have guns, but we have flowers" went viral online. 

Of course, no political leader can ignore the terror threat, and short-term security measures are in order.  In the long term, I am inclined to believe in my grandmother's maxim "better to prevent than to cure " (a disease). 

What have we done all these years to predict, let alone prevent, the march of al-Baghdadi's forces from Syria into Iraq early last year? The sweeping victories by well armed and well trained fighters were a huge surprise to the general public who had never heard of ISIS. But sociologists, scholars, authors, even film makers have been giving us hints for years - decades - of what the future may bring. I mentioned Kureishi's movie "My Son, the Fanatic" in one of my previous blogs. 

Why is it that political leaders cannot read the writing on the wall when a lot of ordinary citizens can? Politicians react and over-react to compensate for the lack of timely action at a great cost to their nations, and it's just what the terrorists want. ISIS is now a household name in every corner of the world, partly due to their own propaganda, and partly due to the attention they are getting from the media and the political leaderships.

As Brooks and others point out, the best way to reduce the benefits terrorists reap from the world's attention is to stop overreacting. History shows that terrorism cannot be defeated by arms, and that safety measures work only until attackers figure out a way to circumvent them.  Even if you destroy one terrorist group, another one will crop up. But a lot can be done to prevent any new wave of violence by foreseeing it.  Closer cooperation between scholars and politicians might help produce a more
successful final outcome in the so-called war on terror.

Furter reading:
An academic study from 2004  

Recent article from The New York Review of Books:

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