A tidal wave of outrage has consumed commentators of every political hue following the horrific attacks in Paris last week. The far right immediately argued that we should begin bombing Syria (because nothing gets rid of an insurgent, borderless, terrorist army quite like indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets), and (surprise surprise) immigration needs tightening.
Meanwhile, the left are aghast at our instinctive ability to rally behind France, whilst remaining unmoved and even unaware of similar tragedies throughout the Middle East. Many have been rendered speechless by the ill-informed finger pointing at Syrian refugees, themselves fleeing in terror from the barbarism of IS. And the rest? Well they ticked a box on Facebook which superimposed a French flag over their profile picture, because that’s how we do solidarity in the digital age. Je suis [insert tragedy here], there’s an app and everything.
Whilst it’s true that most people have become utterly desensitised to terrorist attacks outside of the west, it’s a little unfair to hold that against them. Our knowledge of the Middle East is filtered through a relatively small number of correspondents, and the media’s coverage of such conflicts tends to be woefully two dimensional and desperately simplistic. Filmmaker Adam Curtis made an excellent piece about a phenomenon he called “oh dearism” in 2013, in which he argued that a increased desire to report complex situations as simple morality tales robbed us of the ability to properly contextualise them, rendering us incapable of any meaningful response beyond “oh dear”. It’s only about 5 minutes long, I’d thoroughly recommend giving it a watch.
To some extent “oh dearism” explains our ability to glaze over at news of explosions in Lebanon, whilst being moved beyond words by explosions in Paris, but it’s also the rarity of seeing these events play out in more familiar surroundings to our own. It’s a reminder of our own vulnerability, a reminder of just how out of touch our government is with regards defence – for example, spending untold billions on a nonsensical and utterly useless nuclear deterrent, playing the unwitting sidekick to the real life Team America: World Police.
We look on national security as if it’s still the early 20th century (largely due to the massive influence of weapons manufacturers on government), but we are no longer engaged in arms races with rival empires. It’s called terrorism for a reason, it’s utterly terrifying. For as long as there is just one deranged ideologue with nothing left to lose, willing to strap explosives to his body, no amount of military might can deter him; and no amount of revenge bombing will make the world safer, or bring about justice for the victims.
The bottom line is that two groups got a shot in the arm last week: IS, and the far right. IS got (and continues to receive) masses of publicity. Supposedly, they even managed to manipulate the media narrative in the form of forged Syrian passports conveniently left at the scene of the crime (so predictable were our media’s prejudices, we lapped it up).
The far right are already riding a wave of increased xenophobia to insinuate that every single refugee fleeing war torn Syria is a potential suicide bomber. They’re not being racist you understand, they just want to protect our hard earned freedoms (it’s just sheer coincidence that the likes of the EDL and Britain First never have much to say when white people commit terrorist acts).
In the hours, days and weeks following major atrocities like these, our leaders are quick to implore us not to change who we are, after all “that’s what the terrorists want”. Yet in reality, what this particular brand of terrorism wants, is a world war and with that, many more recruits to its cause. Therefore, increased hostility towards Muslims around the world, a continued willingness to ignore or excuse Israeli aggression combined with the bombing of civilian targets in Syria, will be music to the ears of IS.
Few things are certain in this world, but any time a major terrorist attack occurs on western soil, prepare to have more civil liberties taken away, prepare for stepped up military action, prepare to make more enemies, and then prepare for it all to happen again. THAT’S what the terrorists want, so why, every single time, do we so willingly hand it to them on a plate?
If we have learned nothing else from the last 15 years, it’s surely that our standard knee jerk responses regarding the Middle East have not worked. Indeed, all too often we have actually exacerbated the problems, whilst increasing our own vulnerability into the bargain.
If reactionary foreign policy hasn’t worked up till now, if in fact it correlates a little too neatly with a huge increase in extremist terrorist activity at home and abroad, then maybe, just maybe, it’s time to try a different approach.