Sunday, November 15, 2015

Unboxing my thoughts on Paris

Like, well, pretty much everyone else, my Friday afternoon and evening was derailed by the terrorist massacre in Paris. For me, what was most scary was that, living in NYC after 9/11, this was the sort of attack I feared the most.

For all the security theater, there is no such thing as a secure environment, free from all threat. We've had plenty of examples of how easy it is to walk into just about anywhere with a gun and start shooting. Really, if you think about it, it's something of a miracle this sort of thing hasn't been happening on American city streets since 9/11.

If you've ever taken a ride on the NYC subway, along with the other six million daily riders, you know that any attempt to establish a secure environment is a joke. Living life, no matter where you live, means you are going to have many daily moments of being pretty well unguarded from someone who wants to do bad things: a restaurant, your church, the bar, the doctor's office...

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, I think this fact is hitting people. In Europe, it appears that the Schengen Area of borderless travel is in jeopardy. Here, the main responses I've seen have been "pray for Paris" (a lovely sentiment that is also tacit acceptance of the only thing that might help this is divine intervention) and "we need to attack them back."

Let's talk about these.

For starters, if you wish to pray for Paris, by all means do so. That said... Paris is going to be fine. This is a city that was occupied by the Nazis for four years. Not bombed. Not under threat. It was under Nazi rule. Today, the city shows few scars from those dire years and is absolutely an example of a diverse, progressive cosmopolitan area. It has its issues, yes. Years of French colonization of Africa has often led to ethic tensions with French-speaking immigrants. Paris has a centuries-long tradition of going on strike at just about any moment for any reason. It's primary airport is a nightmare.

And yet... it is by-and-large one of the world's great cities. Like NYC after 9/11, it will go on. Bad things have happened there before and will again. The city will endure and thrive. If you really want to be convinced of all this, go read the lyrics to "La Marseillaise." As an American who would prefer the celebratory lyrics of "America the Beautiful" as our national anthem to "The Star Spangled Banner," the French national anthem should leave no doubt as to how the French tend to feel when their borders are under threat. "Let an impure blood water our furrows," indeed.

Much is being made on social media of how the Paris attack is getting disproportionate coverage vs. similar attacks in Beirut and Kenya. To me, this would be an entirely different blog post, but, suffice to say, I do think an attack of any sort against a NATO country likely deserves more attention in other allied countries than other things. That said, the default American response, to me, shows a complete lack of understand of the complexities we face in the Middle East, and certainly, that misunderstanding affects media coverage.

When I was in Germany a year ago, I had the chance to speak to some Lebanese Christians. To put it mildly, they were terrified. It warrants thinking about this clearly: these are people who grew up surrounded by extremism. If it wasn't Hezbollah, it was Israeli rockets. Life can't have been anything like what I would consider normal. Despite all that, nothing has scared them more than ISIS, they said. What scared them most was a combination of the world ISIS wants and the sheer difficulties in combating them.

This is an area we need to consider. At least, post-9/11, when we invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban was in charge of Afghanistan. ISIS, on the other hand, is operating within sovereign nations. So, let's say you want to go attack ISIS right now. Chances are, you're talking about doing so in Syria, which, in case you haven't been watching, is a hot mess. Let's go ahead and assume the average Syrian would like seeing US ground troops in Syria (at best, this is a reach). We roll in, blow up some stuff, ISIS retreats (to... Iraq? Lebanon? It's gonna be somewhere) and... the Assad regime is still in place and emboldened? The Syrian civil war has one less combatant? The Russians supporting Assad are just fine with the USA rolling into Syria? What about the other countries where ISIS is active? Do we roll into Libya, Iraq, Egypt, etc.? How do you pick and choose?

It's an impossible situation. And, really, one that won't bear fruit, if you ask me. Unless you think our post-9/11 wars put an end to terror, you have to accept that, sure, it would be very good to weaken ISIS, but that, if anything, attacking them will increase terror attacks, too. ISIS doesn't have the standing armies of NATO. It does have people who are willing to walking into concert venues and set off grenades.

If we really want to take some steps to begin to curb Islamic extremism, I think it is going to take a completely different approach. I don't have the answers, but, to me, it's going to have to include these items below. And I am not hopeful, because each of them seems to be asking average Americans to do things that, at best, will be unpopular.

The issues are myriad, but the primary issue is that we oversimplify the situation in the Middle East. Your average American has no idea the difference between Arabs and Persians. We are further hurt by our complete unwillingness to see how our own actions undermine any positive steps we could attempt to take in the region. If you need evidence of this, all you need to look at is how, when the dictators were deposed recently and votes were held, not everyone wanted to vote for people friendly to the USA. Freedom may come to the Middle East and people may vote for people we don't like. That's democracy, but it's evidence that, systemically, we need to change some things if we ever want to chip away at the anti-American sentiment in the region that helps fuel extremism.

A good first step would be to stop demonizing Islam across the board. We should be embracing Muslim allies in this fight, but there is a huge faction of Americans that will have none of it. When you have pastors on TV burning copies of the Qu'ran and people protesting a mosque being built in their communities, it's not a good look. Let's say you're a Muslim at a Syrian university student and you see Americans on TV burning your holy book. You want those folks rolling into your country? If you say, "well, he should know not all Americans are like that," then you need to start speaking up when Muslims are grouped together as evil. It goes both ways and we need to not be content to "agree to disagree" on this issue. Allowing anyone to further the thought that Islam is and only is a religion of violence is probably way #1 to ensure that Islamic extremism never ends. It thrives on the concept that "the west doesn't want you" and, when we prove that point, the terrorists win.

It's one of the things that reporters paid to cover this day-in and day-out have noted in the Paris aftermath: Europe's willingness to take in refugees, in many cases warmly, completely undermines ISIS' primary recruiting pitch and harms their effort to stoke a war between the culture. It angers them. Fighting terror with kindness doesn't yield the same instant gratification of watching the army roll in, but it is a move that changes perceptions and cultures over time.

That said, embracing refugees here won't do anything until we address at least three other things:

  • Nearly unlimited support for the monarchs of Saudi Arabia. The USA, for a lot of reasons ranging from oil to military positioning, lets the Saudi monarchy do things that we denounce in other countries of the world. I don't have a solution here and certainly, we shouldn't be imposing one on the people. What is clear is that any person with a brain - and there are millions of the in the Middle East - can see a huge inconsistency with how we treat the Saudi kingdom vs. almost any other Islamic country in the area. We talk about the need to spread freedom and give people the freedom and justice systems they deserve... just not in Saudi Arabia. No, we like our status quo with the Saudis for a lot of reasons. Until we reconcile that with how we approach the rest of the region, it undermines anything else we do. We look like colonialists, basically. 
  • Absolutely unlimited support for Israel. I want to start by saying that Israel is proof positive of what is possible in the region with its first world economy and infrastructure along with a true democracy (despite compulsory military service). That said, Benjamin Netanyahu has destroyed any possibility for "peace in the Middle East," as far as I'm concerned. Yes, Hamas and Hezbollah have done terrible things. But Bibi has been a hard-liner from the start, he has empowered the Israeli Orthodox extremists to outsized power and, plainly, I find it nearly impossible as a thinking person to support Israel politically right now. There are solutions here and it is only the arrogance of people like Netanyahu that don't let them happen. It used to be that Israel needed to give up its settlements in what should be Palestinian territory. Unfortunately, they have built those up so much as to be an impossibility. Plainly, new lines need to be drawn and Israel needs to give back some land one way or another. One major thing the USA could insist upon and help led would be getting Jerusalem out of Israeli hands. It is clear that no one group should own Jeruslaem. Israelis and Israeli supporters will almost certainly balk at this proposal, but it is necessary. One of the holiest cities in the world should not belong to any country with an official religion. I suggest it should be overseen by a three-way panel (Christian, Muslim and Jewish) and overseen by the UN. Doing those two things, though, would help ease numerous tensions in the region and would at least show Israel as a moderating factor rather than an aggressor. And right now, Israel is an aggressor, as far as I am concerned. Bibi is playing the game like it's 1979. It doesn't make anything the Palestinian extremists are doing OK, but I think a strong case can be made that our unequivocal support for anything Israel does fuels the fire of Islamic extremism. When Israel steps too far, we need to say so and mean it.
  • Iran. This is the one that will be the most unpopular of three unpopular suggestions. If we really, truly, want to see an end to Islamic extremism, we need to find a way to get along with Iran. At the least, the Middle East needs a truly prosperous Islamic country, preferably one with something resembling democracy. Like it or not, Iran is the best bet here. This is a rather well-developed country. It has a real army. It has a long tradition of scholarship and a rich culture. It has a real middle class. It also has an extremist Islamic regime behind the more secular leadership. We are not going to change it overnight, but we need to do all we can to support the more moderate Iranian middle class and I don't mean give them tools to overthrow their government. A good first step would simply be to let the Iranian system be. We don't need to underwrite it, but let's stop trying to fight it. I actually think the nuclear deal we reached with Iran was a positive step. Sure, it remains to be seen if Iran can hold up its end of the deal, but if we treat Iran the same way we treat ISIS, we risk alienating the millions of moderate Iranians who don't want to see the world spiral into a war of cultures. Iran is not ISIS - quite the contrary - and if there's going to be an Islamic republic, I say we go with the one that values modern science and not the values of the 7th Century.
An ideal world in the shorter term (and I mean 20-25 years... solving this whole thing will take 100 at least) is one where there is a prosperous, but not aggressive Jewish state, a Palestinian state where there is real hope for a better tomorrow and an Islamic state (again, Iran can fill this role if we try to cultivate it) that manages to blend the Islamic culture with a true first-world economy and (hopefully) democracy. Everyone has to give something here, but if that becomes that case, your average Muslim youth probably doesn't have the motivation to go fight with ISIS.

This isn't going to eliminate terror overnight. Hell, it's probably got no chance of actually happening because the extremist groups in each country, including our own, will never allow themselves to become so marginalized. At the least, those groups are too heavily invested in their worldviews to allow any real discussion of these topics. There's too much for those groups to lose unless we stand up, all of us, and demand it. I fear there's way too much for the average person in each of these places to consider and learn, though.

So, here we are. I imagine the guns will fire and ISIS will be put on the run sooner or later. Another group will come along and take its place and the cycle will continue. But is it too much to hope that maybe, just maybe, we can all step back and hammer out a better way? Can we let go of decades of preconceived notions and assumptions and just say "look, let's just try this?"

Because, long term, our survival probably depends on it.

1 comment:

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