There is only one way to honor the victims of political or ideological violence properly. We give meaning to meaningless tragedy by turning it to positive purpose. This is the task in response to the horrors inflicted on Parisians last week.
“Do we have what we need to defeat this threat?” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Sunday morning on This Week. Stephanopoulos scored an exclusive interview with Attorney General Eric Holder, who was in Paris to confer with French and other European counterparts.
If I could have replied to the question, I would have said, “Not yet. It’s time to think this through more thoroughly than we have so far.”
Holder’s response to Stephanopoulos ran to more information sharing among Western nations’ security agencies and enhanced detection resources. Obama’s AG elaborated, “We have to have our intelligence community, we have to have the law-enforcement community, we need to have our state and local-community counterparts, and we need to have American citizens be vigilant. We have that program of see something and—and say something.”
Fine. Numerous other senior judicial, intelligence, and security officials say the same thing daily in the press and broadcast reports. But consider Holder’s list: It treats the problem underlying the massacre at Charlie Hebdo as a mosquito on a pond, a skim across the surface. Wrongs are committed and must be prevented.
It is not enough. If the Western democracies want to surmount what is now a worldwide crisis with the radical fringes of Islam, this is the moment to enter upon the bugaboo question no one wants to ask: the question of causality. Where did the perversion of one of the world’s great religions come from? What drives these terrorists?
After the September 11 attacks 14 years ago, Richard Perle came out with a fateful idea of how to address them. “Any attempt to understand terrorism is an attempt to justify it,” Perle, an intellectual in George W. Bush’s administration, said famously. “Just wage total war.” This he called “decontextualization.”
Decontextualization, we must shout all the way to the Place de la République, is the single biggest mistake of post-September 11th strategy. In his first State of the Union speech a few months after the attacks in New York and Washington, President Bush reduced radical Islam’s motivation to “They envy our freedoms.” We have to recognize this now as a dodge similar to Perle’s.
Days after the Charlie Hebdo attack and another at a supermarket in the Porte de Vincennes district of Paris, French Premier Manuel Valls declared France to be at war. “It is a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity,” Valls said.
Many people have resisted the “war on terror” label; I have on the argument that it obscures more than it reveals. But Valls is right in this respect: Post-Paris, it is time to recognize that wars in Iraq, Syria, and parts of Africa, along with apparently increasing attacks in Western nations, amount to fronts in a single conflict between radical Islamists and those deemed their enemies.
Still, it is vital to get the next thought right. After watching footage of Charlie Hebdo’s bloodied offices last week, my thoughts went straight to Corrie ten Boom, the heroic Dutch woman who sheltered many Jews during the Nazi occupation. “The first step on the way to victory is to recognize the enemy,” she wrote in one of her books.
Many generals who never shared ten Boom’s devout Christianity have said the same. It’s good strategy: Understand the other side’s thinking, motivations, and psychology.
This is where we have to go now. The message Paris sends is that decontextualizing, and the dehumanizing that goes along with it, won’t take us any further. In root causes lie root solutions.
Let us speak plainly now. Understanding the enemy confronting us requires many things, but one of them is that we recognize the West’s not-inconsiderable part in creating it. This will entail some difficult admissions—colonial interventions, oil grabs, support of barbarous dictators, and more—but in the perilous era we’ve plainly entered upon, flinching will not do.
Robert Fisk, The Independent’s Middle East correspondent and a man not noted for flinching, made the case compellingly after the Paris attackers were identified as Algerian by background:
For Algeria remains the most painful wound within the body politic of the Republic—save, perhaps, for its continuing self-examination of Nazi occupation—and provides a fearful context for every act of Arab violence against France. The six-year Algerian war for independence, in which perhaps a million and a half Arab Muslims and many thousands of French men and women died, remains an unending and unresolved agony for both peoples.
Fisk’s punch line is one any correspondent or columnist has to admire:
Maybe all newspaper and television reports should carry a “history corner,” a little reminder that nothing—absolutely zilch—happens without a past. Massacres, bloodletting, fury, sorrow, police hunts (“widening” or “narrowing” as sub-editors wish) take the headlines. Always it’s the “who” and the “how”—but rarely the “why.”
The immense rally at the Place de la République Sunday, led by 40 linked-arms world leaders, is a highly encouraging sign: If we are to face this crisis effectively, we face it together.
The vitally important point here is to define “we” properly. It is time, too, to dispose of the “we-and-they” frame wherein we are amid a faceoff between the West and the Islamic world. The “we” of the 21st century transcends the age-old distinction between East and West. The “they” are as abhorrent to almost all Muslims as they are to Westerners.
“Eventually we need to work with Muslim countries and Muslim people,” Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador in Washington, told George Stephanopoulos Sunday morning. Well said, Mr. Ambassador.
I’ve heard no one else redefine our “we” so succinctly. To set out on this course now will erase the senselessness of this tragedy. This is the worthiest monument we can erect in honor of the victims in Paris last week.
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