I wasn’t planning on writing anything else on the Paris attacks. It is mostly a tragedy that will lead to other tragedies. But one of the side-debates has been around media coverage and global reaction to the attacks in comparison with the relative dearth of information about a suicide bombing in Beirut the previous day. This series of tweets has been widely shared:
And Max Fisher at Vox has written a great column pointing out that there was plenty of media coverage of the suicide bombing in Beirut, but that the harsh reality is that consumers of media simply don’t care about bombings that happen in places like Lebanon, but they care a lot about attacks in Paris.
This is true for me. I have this non-rational intuition that western cities like Paris are supposed to be safe, and terrorist attacks against them are horrific crimes that almost defy explanation. I think that’s a widespread attitude and all of the debate about whether the attacks were caused by refugees, or French colonialism, or that there’s ‘something’ wrong with Islam and/or that we’re involved in a big clash of civilisations are attempts to fill that explanatory void.
What’s odd about the debate is that France has been at war with ISIS for two months. Their air-force has been bombing them since September. I think France and other western nations can make a pretty strong moral argument for going to war with Islamic state – I’ll talk more about their strategy later – but when you attack a cruel terror state that is known for savage attacks against civilian targets, why are we so bewildered when they strike back against civilian targets? The day after the attack President Hollande declared that France was now at war with ISIS, and then launched retaliatory air strikes against the ISIS capital Raqqa in Syria. It seems a little odd to declare war against a state that you’ve been at war with for two months, and to punish them by bombing a city that France, the US, UK, Russia and Iran have been bombing for over a year. It is hard to imagine that many senior ISIS commanders were hanging around to get killed after launching the Paris attacks and blowing up a Russian passenger jet the day before. The attacks were almost certainly symbolic and pointless in military terms.
Western states like to conduct air-strikes. It is a very low risk way of waging war. Actually, western states rarely explicitly announce they’re waging war. Instead we engage in nation-building or peacekeeping or deploy troops or commit air-forces, or some other euphemism. For civilians in the west these are very low-risk activities, generally carried out through local proxy forces while we provide training or air-support. Which might help explain the confusion around motives for ISIS’s attack. Most western nations have been at war in the middle-east – or someplace else – for so long, with so little direct consequence we can basically just ignore it until suddenly we can’t.
It looks like the air-strikes/proxy force strategy is shaping up to be the solution to ISIS. The west will probably decide to support Assad and the Iraqi government in Baghdad in a campaign to recapture all of the territory claimed by ISIS. But ISIS is also a solution to a big problem, which is that there are millions of Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria that don’t want to be ruled by the Assad regime or the Shia government in Baghdad, both of which are just as cruel and murderous as ISIS.
If this happens it will be a great solution in terms of the domestic politics of the west. We can all go back to forgetting we’re at war until we get another horrific reminder, when we can all get angry and dumbfounded and confused again, and our leaders can look decisive by declaring war on whoever we’re already at war with and bomb something they’ve already bombed. But it will probably be the worst strategy in terms of the long-term stability of the region, and lead to a vast number of people being killed or displaced, albeit in places that people like me don’t particularly care about.