The recent string of bombings and mass shootings in Paris are a tragedy of the first order. The most recent reports suggest upwards of 129 people killed in seven separate incidents, with many more wounded. Taken together, it is the most severe attack in France’s modern history, and ISIS has claimed responsibility. France remains in a state of emergency as the authorities try to identify the remaining perpetrators.
All Human Suffering Is Not Created Equal
Perhaps this is an obvious point, but the reaction to the civilian deaths in France and other Western countries is very different than the reaction to deaths of civilians from other countries. A good rule of thumb appears to be that the farther east and south one goes, the value of human suffering declines precipitously. The Paris Attacks will certainly and rightly dominate the news cycle for the next few days. President Obama already gave remarks condemning the attacks (more on these later), as did many other leaders. On Twitter, many offered messages of support and condolences for the victims of the #ParisAttacks, and I’ve noticed a preponderance of profile pictures on social media overlaid with the colors of the French flag (no judgment if you did this, just noting). The message is clear: solidarity with the French. It’s a message we can all agree on.
But the point is that this response is not universal. Two weeks ago, an ISIS-affiliate appears to have planted a bomb on a Russian civilian airplane, ultimately killing all 224 people aboard. Although Russia hasn’t formally concluded its investigation, everyone basically agreed early on that this was indeed a terrorist attack, with senior US officials telling CNN they were “99.9% certain”. Yet, the first instance I can find of the US publicly expressing condolences or concern for the Russian people appears to have been yesterday, when Obama saw Putin at the G20 Summit. It’s possible that this delay was out of respect for Russia’s ongoing investigation. But given that doing anything out of respect for Russia is not really our thing, I’m going to assume that’s not the real reason. More likely, the Obama administration is beginning to wake up to the true degree of the Syrian catastrophe right now and recognizing that Russia’s actions are broadly in line with the US’s own efforts.
Earlier this week, ISIS claimed responsibility for another suicide bombing, this time in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 43 and injuring 239 people. The attack took place in a Shiite neighborhood known to have strong support for the Hezbollah group, which is fighting against ISIS in Syria. The local US Embassy released a statement expressing its condolences, but it was not a major news story. In the New York Times’ rendition, the story focused mostly on how the Lebanese group Hezbollah is supporting the Syrian government.
And of course, who could forget one of the wedding bombings in Yemen committed by Saudi Arabia, which killed 131 people and wounded countless others. The mere fact that I had to introduce this story as “one of” the wedding bombings is telling–indeed another one happened a week later killing at least 30 more people. While Saudi Arabia was widely condemned in the aftermath of those strikes, no real action came from it. And of course, no US official called for solidarity with the Yemeni people or the Houthi rebels as a result of this onslaught. I suspect few Americans even heard about it in the first place.
There is a way in which the string of terror attacks in Paris are qualitatively more significant than any of the individual incidents noted above. There were more attackers involved, the attack occurred in a relatively secure European city, and the coordination of the attacks suggests a more sophisticated threat than previously expected. These factors certainly add to the shock factor and explain some of the disparity in reaction.
But the point here is not to devalue the very real suffering occurring in France; it is to elevate the like experiences of people in other countries. It is entirely human to identify and sympathize more with victims and circumstances that are closer to our own. I have friends from France and it’s easy to imagine being in the places where these attacks occurred–a concert hall, a restaurant, a soccer stadium… But the fact that it’s easier to identify with these victims does not make the other victims any less important. Indeed, because the US government is entirely complicit with the many civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, etc. arguably makes them the most important of all. Because those are the ones we can clearly prevent.
The Goal of Terrorism is Extremism
Now and always, terrorism is politically motivated. Murdering French civilians does not achieve anything for ISIS in and of itself. Rather, it is designed to provoke a reaction. This was true for Al-Qaeda on 9/11, when they sought to provoke a military response to bleed America to bankruptcy. And it is true of ISIS today. ISIS’s desired result is to inspire more persecution and fear of Muslims by Western governments and by ordinary people. ISIS needs to create a more compelling narrative of a war against Islam generally, in which they can present themselves as the defenders of the faith being attacked by modern-day crusaders.
Dan Sanchez at Antiwar.com noted that ISIS has even explicitly stated this as their goal in an article called the “Extinction of the Grayzone”. Incredibly, the ISIS article cites George W. Bush approvingly when he said, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” That’s the kind of duality ISIS wants to create. This kind of mentality worked for Bush to justify an unnecessary war against the Taliban (which didn’t do 9/11), and ISIS is hoping it will help bolster their support as well.
It turns out the most significant threat to ISIS isn’t the War on Terror, it’s the absence of it.
French President Hollande has promised to wage a “pitiless war” in response to the attacks, and indeed a new round of airstrikes were already launched on Sunday. This seems like an ominous development, but we must recognize that France has already been a very active military participant in the Middle East and northern Africa in recent years. The French participated in the disastrous war in Libya in 2011, invaded Mali in 2012, and were already participating in airstrikes in Syria and Iraq before the attacks. None of these endeavors have turned out very well for the countries involved, and they inspire blowback against France itself. Indeed, one of the gunmen from Friday is reported to have said “This is for Syria” during the attacks. France’s military involvement in the region, along with its significant Muslim minority population and proximity to the Middle East, appear to be the main reasons it was targeted.
That said, don’t expect the US to present this in terms of cause-and-effect. In President Obama’s remarks, he implied that the people of France were being terrorized for “the values they stand for.” This is implausible. The correlation between military involvement in foreign countries and terrorism at home is not a coincidence. Sweden and Switzerland share France’s values too, but somehow they do not experience major attacks like this.
Though unsurprising, this framing of the issue is interesting in part because US officials and media have been warning Russia about the possible terrorism consequences of their intervention in Syria. It appears that when Russia experiences terrorism, it’s because they bomb Syria. When Western nations experience it, it’s because of their values.