Brussels Attacks and The Continuing Failure of the “War on Terror”

As most people have probably heard, Brussels, Belgium was hit by a string of terrorist attacks yesterday. The most recent reports put the death toll at a minimum of 36 people with over 200 wounded through a combination of bombings and shootings at multiple locations.

But as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The specifics of the most recent attacks are different, but the broad contours are very similar to the Paris Attacks that occurred last fall. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the latest atrocity. The targeted city is highly involved in the Western intervention in Syria; Belgium is the seat of both NATO and the EU. The Belgian authorities responded by launching widespread raids–which are likely to impact innocent people. Prior to the attacks, Belgian authorities had already significantly expanded policing powers in the name of preventing a terrorist attacks. And as with Paris, the attacks in Belgium come after a spate of human tragedies in more exotic countries that inspire considerably less sympathy–such as Turkey and Yemen.

Given all these similarities, it’s worth recapitulating much of the analysis we offered in the wake of the Paris Attacks. The motivation and targets were similar; unfortunately, the response looks like it will be as well.

Unequal Suffering
It goes without saying that tragedies in Western countries tend to inspire more sympathy and attention than suffering in other places. Many observers pointed this disparity out in the last major terrorist attack in Europe, and now it appears many outlets have become conscious of it. Today, you could choose from a host of articles that highlighted other recent terrorist attacks in less prominent countries. Many emphasize the recent bombings in Ankara, Turkey, though this piece at US Uncut takes a broader view to discuss the places that have been most affected terrorist attacks in recent years, with Kenya and Lebanon registering near the top.

What is less common, however, is emphasizing civilian casualties caused by Western nations and their allies. Just this past week in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition, which is backed and supplied by the US, killed upwards of 120 civilians. A UN official commendably made a few headlines about this incident being a “possible” war crime, but that was about it.

The slew of various violent attacks over the past several months, and the reactions they generated, allow us to see the de facto media prioritization of violence. It appears to look roughly like this, from most to least important:

  • Western victims of terrorist violence
  • Western victims of Western violence (for example, the US attack on the Doctors Without Borders facility in Kunduz)
  • Non-Western victims of terrorist violence
  • Non-Western victims of Western (and allied) violence
There’s no particular reason things ought to be this way, but it’s how they tend to line up. And when you think of all the posturing and saber-rattling endemic of the current Presidential campaign–and all that will be prompted by the Brussels Attacks–it’s worth wondering about the last time you heard anyone talk about Yemen.
The Purpose Is To Spark a Reaction
A few sensational terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, or the US is not an existential threat to any of these countries. One has to think about this topic for all of three seconds to know this truth. And it’s almost certain that the leaders of ISIS know this as well.
That’s because these attacks are not launched on the premise that, by themselves, they’ll have any meaningful effect. On the contrary, the purpose to spark an overreaction by Belgian and EU authorities and everyday citizens. That is the only way these attacks succeed.
If Belgium responds by further cracking down on Muslim residents out of fear or launching an expanded bombing campaign in Syria for retribution, then it will bolster ISIS’s narrative. Similarly, if Islamophobia rises in earnest from these attacks and leads to discrimination against Muslims, that too increases ISIS’s chances of recruiting sympathizers. That’s precisely their strategy, because it’s their only hope.
The details of the attackers were not fully known at the time of this writing, but it’s a relatively safe bet that they were European residents of some stripe. The refugee screening process is likely too time-consuming to get through, and non-Western, non-EU citizens would face heightened scrutiny after the attacks occurred already. Thus, radicalizing people that are already Western residents is ISIS’s only chance. And it’s why the response to this tragedy is what really matters. If Paris is any guide, Belgium is likely to play right in ISIS’s strategy.
The False Trade-off between Liberty and Security
In the aftermath of the Paris Attacks, it was widely reported that France dramatically expanded its emergency policing powers and, presumably, swept up numerous innocent people in the process. France also continuously extended those powers until they appear to have become something like the new normal.
We must not forget, however, that France’s neighbor Belgium also dramatically stepped up its own policing powers in the wake of those attacks. This was justified in part the fact that some of the suspects in the Paris Attacks were Belgian citizens. Predictably, the moves were framed as attempting to balance the competing priorities of liberty and security. And of course, in the wake of a vivid terrorist attack, most people are perfectly willing to trade liberty for security.
But this is a mistake. Not chiefly because liberty matters more than security, but because there’s no way to make the trade. The idea of trading liberty for security implies that something like total security is attainable–a world where nothing like the Brussels Attacks can happen. Unfortunately, this is all but impossible. It’s a problem of asymmetry. Would-be attackers need to find only one vulnerability in the public security in order to be successful–basically just any crowded place without an overwhelming police presence. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies are tasked with trying to prevent every vulnerability imaginable. Even with vastly expanded resources and assuming the highest level of confidence in the law enforcement personnel, this is an impossible task. That the Brussels Attacks just happened even after such powers were expanded offers the latest evidence of this reality.
Ultimately, when thinking about the response to these terrorist attacks, we need to consider which is more likely to produce a better outcome: charging law enforcement with the power and duty to think of and thwart every every conceivable terrorist plan in advance, or ending the aggressive actions that enrage people enough to try to kill Western civilians and themselves in the first place. On pragmatic grounds alone, that should not be a hard question.
Let’s hope political leaders find the right answer. Somehow, I’m not optimistic.

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